Ode to the book | Sunday Observer

Ode to the book

“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; after an era of darkness, new races build others. But, in the world of books, are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written; still telling men’s hearts, of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

Clarence S.Day (1874-1935)
American Author.

Each September, a thronging multitude of keen and ardent ‘Devotees’, perform a heart-warming ritual. They gather in a collective demonstration of the affection they so enthusiastically entertain towards books. And, their ‘cult-object’ ‘The Book’ emerges as a potent force, that can quite effectively link together the past, the present and of course the future.

In today’s global society, the most popular cultural artifact is the ‘Book’. There is hardly anyone in the modern world, who is not aware of what a book is. No one is ever likely to gainsay this assertion, as it is the stark truth.

In Sri Lanka, in this season, there is a heightened alertness to the ‘Book’. In the popular mind, nowadays, the notion has got almost indelibly registered that September is the book-month. Those who adore books assemble at the festival venue, as if lured by a compelling carnival spirit. They see, touch, read, talk about and generally ‘live’ books, demolishing the myth, that was widely prevalent sometime ago, that the Sri Lankans have a loth for books.


During the Book season, an extensive public discourse takes place about different facets relating to books. The general tendency is to focus on rupees-and-cents, financial issues involved in publishing and marketing of books and on profit-and-loss-in material terms.

I made up my mind, on the other hand, to utilize this sharpened interest in books, to concentrate on the fascinating story of the evolution of this miraculous human product, technically referred to as the ‘Codex Book’.

The epic evolution of the book, is more enthralling, I believe, than any work of fiction that has appeared in the long history of global literature.

Palaeontologists conclude that the proto-human ‘Homo habilis’ (man the maker) effortlessly ejaculated ‘speech’, while strenuously utilising his hands, to shape crude tools out of stones and pieces of wood.

This primitive speech eventually turned into pictures, giving rise to written words.

In the ancient world, one of the countries, that had an advanced system of writing was Babylonia. Since the land was located between the two rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, this kingdom was also known as Mesapotamia (Land Between Rivers).

They developed the art of writing, making use of the material extensively found in that land, mud. When the rivers overflowed, they deposited thick layers of mud.

The people write on the wet mud, with a sharp-pointed chisel. They would eventually have them dried. The resultant ‘tablets’ were their books. The Babylonians were reputed for their libraries. Nineveh, a Babylonian city is conceived to be the site where they had a Library. This was perhaps the first Library of mankind. The Babylonian system of writing is described as “cuneiform” (shaped with a chisel).

World’s oldest Epic poem ‘Gilgamesh’ is a Babylonian creation. This was in the 3000 BC era. The story-line of the epic is quite intriguing. The hero of the Epic, Gilgamesh was granted the ‘plant of immortality’ by gods. While taking it home, he fell asleep. Noting this lapse, a serpent came and stole the ‘Plant of Immortality’ unknown to the hero. The ‘Secret of Immortality’ was lost this way, due to his slothfulness.

Ancient Egypt too, excelled in the practice of writing. In that land, situated on the banks of the mighty river, Nile, a variety of reed called papyrus was extensively available. Leaves of the papyrus reed, were converted into writing material. Royal edicts of Egyptian Kings, Pharaohs, were written on papyrus by learned scribes. These scribes wrote with a brush using ink. Egyptian culture is extensively reputed for its profusion of written records. Their art of writing is known as Hieroglyphs (writing by noble persons).

The Greeks, who have made an unparalleled contribution to human culture, through their books began their writing activities using parchment, which is generally made out of seasoned animal hide. They followed a method of making their books, resorting to a system called ‘boustrophedon’, which implies, ‘the style of oxen ploughing a field’. In terms of this, the lines go alternatively from left to right and right to left.

The ox ploughs a line from left to right, and at the end of that line, ploughs from right to left.

Objectively viewed, the greatest contribution towards the evolution of the book has been made by the Chinese.

In the early days, the Emperors had their edicts drawn on silk cloth. Instructions to provincial officials were sent that way.

Then, the Chinese invented paper. When they discovered the art of making paper, they at once became a leading force in the culture of mankind, as no other area had produced this most utilitarian material. They were the first to create currency notes.

Paper, opened the door to a cultural revolution that has not abated still. This is the invention of the art of printing. Initially, this invention was, thought of only as a means of mechanically proliferating documents. If say, the Emperor needed to address a decree to about 2,000 officials, manual copying would take an unconscionably vast swath of time.

In that kind of background, the Chinese endowed upon the world the art of printing.

To begin with, they created the process called ‘Wood-Bloc Printing’.

The technique adapted in Woodblock printing centered around a seasoned block of wood.

Wood block printing

On the smoothened wood surface, a piece of paper with a written text, was pressed. Since the ink was still wet, the text left an impression on the wood-surface. The impression was a mirror-image of the original text. The artisan would chip away at the characters, so that only the main outlines of the letters are left. The remaining outlines are inked again, and a fresh paper is pressed upon the text remaining on the surface of the wood-block. Now, the correct version would get printed.

This process was described as wood-block printing. There was a major disadvantage in this technique. Through this system copies of only one page of an original text could be obtained. If the original text had 10 pages, ten separate blocks had to be made. To overcome this, the movable type was invented.

Chinese genius overcame this obstacle. They made a block for each letter and not for each page. When that happened the single block could be used in hundreds of thousands of places, where that single letter occurred. That single block was described as the ‘Movable Type’.

This movable type is considered one of the greatest inventions of mankind.

In China, there is a legend, about the mythical inventor of the art of writing. This mythical person Ts’ang Chien, after inventing the art of writing during day time, wept in the night watches. This was because, he felt that man will use this invention, writing, in an unwholesome manner.

We may ask, whether his weeping is justified.

But, whatever that may be, the Chinese contribution to the progress of printing is decidedly massive.

From China, the art of printing spread to Korea and Japan. The first block-printed book of mankind was the Buddhist Serman “Vajra Sutra” (Diamond Sutra).

Empress Shotoku of Japan, a devoted Buddhist, had a million prayer – charms (Dharani patha) printed to be distributed among devotees. This was in 770 AD.

The inventions of paper, block printing and movable type, are an outstanding service to the development of printing. This enabled books to be extensively printed to enrich human culture. Art of printing spread westwards through Marco Polo and other travellers who visited the Chinese Kingdom. By the time, the west resorted to printing in an extensive manner, the Chinese had introduced all the initial techniques. The vital invention movable type progressed in China in several steps – first in Clay 1050, then in tin 1150, in wood in 1300 and in bronze 1350.

This technique is referred to as relief printing or letter press.

The past of the Printing History, merged in the present, with the gradual passing of the era of relief printing (Letter press).

A swift and world-wide evolution into the offset system, ushered in the new era of printing. Individuals and organisations that had relied on Relief Printing (Letter press technique) had to adapt themselves to the new phase, offset. This proved slightly irksome, during the period of transition.

Commenting on the confusion in the global field of printing, with the arrival of the offset technique, in place of the familiar relief printing regime that existed for long decades, a wit made quite an amusing observation. It goes this way:

“At the outset, there will be considerable upset, on the onset of off-set”.

The ultra-sophisticated advancements that have taken place in the modern era of off set printing, linked with miraculous computer applications have ensured an exceptional chapter of elegant, efficient and highly reliable book printing.

Offset technology has paved the way for aesthetically refined book publications especially, those works meant for children.


With all that, there is a lurking misgiving within us, about the future of the Book. Will the millenials, be alienated from the physical ‘Book’, as they seek the coziness of the smart-phone, that can take you right across the globe with a mere swipe?

In this book month, we must take a concerned effort to bring our young ones to the intimacy of holding an absorbing book in hand to spend some time with an author, sharing his view of life. I am deeply moved by the possibility of our young ones, discarding the book, depriving our land of the opportunity of bringing into being a time of writers, who will adorn our history as Ven. Totagamuwe Rahula, Gurulugomi, Ven. Wellewe and numerous other stalwarts. My plea for the Book month is, please keep the door open for Shakespeare, Kalidasa and those galaxies of author-stars without allowing them to be overwhelmed by the casual swipes of the smart phone.

Everyone should immerse in the joyous waves of the Book season events, without allowing civilised life to be darkened, bereft of the enlightening flood of glorious light that books could bring to your life. Experience the living, throbbing an exhilarating thrill of meeting Books that are ever alert to lead you to havens of aesthetic esctasy.