The codex – a book with sheets of paper bound in a cover – first came into use in first-century Rome and gradually spread. It’s expansion was, by no coincidence, commensurate with the rise of Christianity – as scholar Larry Hurtado noted, ‘about 98% of all non-Christian sources dating from before 300 AD are recorded on scrolls and about 2% on codices, whereas among identifiably Christian manuscripts of the same period the percentages are almost exactly reversed’. From late antiquity to recent years the codex has been utterly predominant as the preferred form for the book. But does advent of the e-book mark the beginning of the end for the codex?
According to R.R. Bowker (a publishing research firm), in 2010 the average price of a trade paperback is $10.14 while the average e-book cost $5.75. So, even before we consider shipping costs, that is a saving of $4.39 per book. And of course then there are the 38,000 free e-books you can find at Project Gutenberg. For someone who buys books on a regular basis, it wouldn’t take very long to make up the $79 (plus shipping) that the Kindle will set you back. The growth of e-books is unsurprising and apparently, 19% of American adults now have a tablet/e-book reader.
The codex took a few centuries to really condemn scrolls to the ash heap of history, and it will be some years yet before the codex is undone. And there are a couple groups who are sure to ensure its survival for many years yet. Firstly, the Luddites who are unable or unwilling to adapt to new technology. And, secondly, bibliophiles like myself. As much as I admire the Kindle I have far too great a love for codices – their smell, their feel, the way they age, their shareability – to give them up.
Over time the number of people who buy codices will fall and the greater proportion of those who persist in purchasing them will be bibliophiles who appreciate the distinctive qualities of the codex and are willing to pay extra for them. To my mind, this should have implications for the making and marketing of books.
I judge a book by its cover. A beautiful cover, quality paper, elegant typeface, and durable binding make a big difference to how much I enjoy a book. There are few books I enjoyed more than James Michener’s Caravans and Caribbean. But I haven’t read any of his novels in the last couple years. The reason for this is that I bought a copy of his novel The Source and it has been sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I know I will enjoy it when I come to reading it, but I am unenthusiastic to do so because it is an ugly edition of the book. The cover is garish blue with excessively large writing. Inside it has undersized, blurry font. I have likewise never read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter precisely because it is on my bookshelf, but a most uncomely copy of it.
In contrast, I can hardly resist picking up and re-reading my copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. I bought the book because it was so beautiful and I thought it would make a fitting gift, though to whom exactly I did not know. How I admire Alan Jacobs and Oxford University Press for the honour they did to the codex with their most aesthetically-pleasing The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction! If codices are increasingly to be made for bibliophiles, then let all publishers attend closely to the quality of the physical product.
Much the same can be said of bookstores. Compare the book section at Kmart or Big W with a bookstore which actually markets itself to bibliophiles, such as Embiggen Books on Little Lonsdale Street or Kay Craddock Antiquarian Bookselllers on Collins Street. It is such stores as these that will remain even as the number of codex-buyers falls. At least, that is my I hope.