For more than a millennium, the codex was king. The gathering of paper or vellum, folded into pages, and bound with a protective cover to a common spine was developed in second century Europe. Over the next two hundred years it would slowly overtake the scroll as the primary vessel1 for the recording, storage, and dissemination of the written word.

And since its development, the form of the codex has remained largely unchanged. In fact, the most important innovation in the production of books — the development of movable type printing in the mid fifteenth century — was a manufacturing revolution rather than a reinvention of the codex itself. Gutenberg’s revolution was finding a faster and cheaper way to make books.

Granted, the print revolution did begin the evolution of the manufacture of codices. Vellum pages gave way to paper. Over time, new binding techniques allowed for the production of books of all shapes and sizes with all manner of coverings.

And thanks to the print revolution, the content contained by codices changed tremendously. The spread of the book form led to a blossoming of knowledge and art.

Information begot information. Books begot books.

But for all the changes in content, for all the new shapes and sizes of book, the overall container — the codex — remained largely the same. The form of the book had been locked down a thousand years before the birth of Gutenberg. In other words, channeling Douglas Adams, if a wormhole opened in a Barnes and Noble today and a paperback fell back in time to the court of Charlemagne circa 785 AD, the famed scribe Alcuin would immediately recognize the alien object as a codex, as a book.

The old adage is that when all you have is a hammer, everything comes to look like a nail. If thats true, then it stands that when the only information container you have is a codex, all information starts to look like a book.

Where there is no real alternative, content becomes inseparable from container. The two collapse into a single, seemingly inseparable form.

Well into the 1980’s, if not the early 1990’s, the codex remained the only mass-​market container for the written word. The advent of new types of recording and broadcast media created alternatives to reading. But none of them offered an alternative for reading.

It’s only been in the last two decades with the rise of eReading devices — first the PC, then cell phones, and now eReaders and Tablets — that reading has taken a truly revolutionary step.

We are in the midst of a renaissance for readers and reading. And this renaissance was facilitated not just by an explosion in publishing, but though the creation of alternatives to the codex.

The introduction of alternatives into a space where they had not previously existed disrupted a thousand year old illusion of a hard bound relationship between form and content within the pages of a book. People have discovered, for example, that novels are, for the most part, platform independent — words read just as well on screen as they do in a paperback or a hard cover. A book is no longer synonymous with its traditional physical container. Today the choice of which version of a text to read — hardcover, paperback, audio, or ebook — is becoming increasingly dependent upon what type of experience a reader wishes to have with that text. And that includes having multiple experiences with the same text over a variety of platforms.

The appearance of alternatives containers for words also opens up new and exciting ways of looking at the present, the future, and perhaps, most importantly, the past.

Thinking about reading on smart-​phones and tablets has given me a new perspective on the books in my library. I increasingly find that my books shelves contain printed apps like cookbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias, how-​to books, travel guides, and directories. These collections of functional information, written for random access rather than narrative reading, and intended for specialized tasks were relegated to books, not because that was the optimal format for that information, but because the codex was the only option available.

Looking at things from this perspective — that these were always apps that we mistook for being books — is it any surprise these categories of publishing have been revolutionized by the advent of electronic reading platforms?

Realizing that digital reading has freed apps hidden within traditional books, points us to the exciting challenge/​opportunity for publishers and creators. Sure, people will continue to write platform independent works like novels. Despite so many fears, there is no real evidence to suggest that long form writing is going to go away. I’m sure their popularity will wax and wane. But while the business models will change, the overall production of that sort of narrative writing will continue unabated.

What is far more exciting, from my perspective, is that creators can now choose between a diverse set of publishing platforms. And that choice opens up new opportunities to create revolutionary works that work to embrace the full potential of their chosen platform. Publishing consultant and all around bright guy, Joe Esposito, beautifully described this challenge as follows in a recent email discussion thread:

[T]here is another model, and that is what I will call the Frostian (from Robert Frost: “all I ask is the freedom of my material”) model. In the latter model, the creative impulse comes about in a struggle with the material – good fences make good neighbors: the operative word is “make.” In this sense, books ARE their containers, or at least they are born of a struggle with their containers.

Now that we have learned how much of our content is platform independent, now that we can stop trying to force apps into the form of books, there’s a wonderful opportunity to create platform-​dependent works. To create books that truly link content and form.2 To choose to work with the codex format and embrace what makes it different than an eReader (and visa versa, of course).

For more than a millennium, the codex was king — the only game in town for the written word. That is now over. We are in the second decade of having real alternatives. And those alternatives are not going to go away in the foreseeable future. In fact we’ll most likely see them expand.

This is such a good thing.

We now have the space, the opportunity, to rediscover the codex and choose to embrace it. We do not need to try and recreate the codex experience on a digital device. After all, the codex has been with us for a long, long time. It isn’t going away. If anything, now is when things get really interesting.

Vive la différence.

  1. Other media for the written word — scrolls, clay tables, chiseled stone, graffiti on walls — persisted, but these were largely relegated to special uses. []
  2. To be fair, there have always been authors and book creators who have worked to tie content and form together. Examples of such works include Tristan Shandy, House of Leaves, and Watchmen … my hope is that this will become a far more common practice. []