The codex – several sheets of paper or parchment sewn together – the book as we know it has been around for 2,000 years. It made reading easier; you don’t need to use both hands to unroll and roll a scroll. You can quickly access any page; numbering made this even easier.
Over the years, all kinds of additional reading tools have been incorporated into books. Titles and subtitles make information more accessible, as in the Bible: even today, when we want to characterize precise information, we speak of “giving chapter and verse”.
Once the books were divided, it made sense to list the contents; to build a table. And when there were a lot of books, stacked and then arranged in rows, a title on the spine made life easier.
Prefaces, introductions, and acknowledgments help us understand authors and decide whether or not to read their books. Plot summaries, eulogies of famous women or men; often they indicate who the authors consulted, what libraries they ransacked, how authorship affected their homes and families.
Publication data: when, where, by whom. An appropriate date and a respectable publisher tell us something, as does cataloging information when provided: how experts classify a book and where to find similar works on library shelves.
Footnotes do a lot of work. They tell us where an author got his information, his ideas; and how hard he worked, maybe. Some authors comment incisively on their sources. Footnotes also tell us where to go next, beyond the words of the author. It is here, long before computers, that the origin of hypertext is located: one text leads to others. Slowly, because you couldn’t click, but scholars have always collected the books they need most often.
The index is another great tool. (There is a new book by Duncan: “Index, a history of the…”.) And its alphabetical classification leads to whole books that are reading tools: most obviously, dictionaries.
Digital media have adopted and adapted some of these reading tools; they have developed over centuries, and new ones take time. The big problem with new media is permanence: remember magnetic tape or floppy disks? We can hope that flash drives and clouds will last this millennium. In the meantime, we still have books.
For David R. Jones, books and their tools matter.