International Printing Museum

When is a Book Not a Book?

What makes a book, a book?

Must a book contain a story?

Must there be multiple pages, bound together?

Must it be hand-held?

Does a portable electronic device count?

Is an audiobook a book?

Is a book of stamps a book?

What about a record of financial transactions as in, the company’s books show a profit?

Are any or all of these considered books?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary has 18 different definitions for the word “book.” The first two are what most of us perceive as a traditional book.

  1. A set of written sheets of skin or paper or tablets of wood or ivory
  2. A set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together between a front and back cover

In my earlier posts, The History of the Book, part 1, and The History of the Book, part 2, I discussed books that adhere to these traditional definitions. In this post, we’re going to explore what may be considered an unconventional view of the book.

Traditional, Yet Unconventional Books

Located in Bulgaria’s National History Museum is a set of “written sheets bound together” to make a rather unconventional book. It predates the Gutenberg Bible, the Diamond Sūtra, and the Book of Kells.

Over 2,600 years ago, the Etruscans, a civilization of ancient Italy, created a book made of gold. It’s composed of six pages of 24-carat gold, bound together with golden rings. It is thought to be a type of prayer book made for the funeral of an aristocrat. The Etruscans were not the only society to write on gold.

Dating from around the same time, archeologists have found sheets or plates of gold containing both Etruscan and Phoenician writing.

These gold sheets, on display at the National Etruscan Museum in Rome, Italy, contain holes around the edges. Scholars believe these holes were used to bind the pages together, like a book.

Truly Unconventional Books

When is a book not a book? One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for a book reads, “all the charges that can be made against an accused person.” You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “they threw the book at him.” Based on this definition, the Code of Hammurabi could be called a book.

The Babylonian King Hammurabi reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C. He enacted one of the earliest and most complete written legal codes. The code covered numerous topics including slander, theft, liability, adultery, divorce, and perjury. The Code of Hammurabi could be found all around the kingdom written on baked clay tablets and basalt steles.

Clay tablets were the writing substrate of choice throughout Babylon and most of Mesopotamia. Many of these tablets were used to record financial transactions. It was a way for a business to keep their “books” in order. Many tablets contained great works of literature that were held in large libraries.

King Ashurbanipal of Assyria established a library in the city of Nineveh with over 30,000 clay tablets. In the ruins of that library was found one of the oldest adventure stories still in existence, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic, comprised of 12 individual tablets, was written around 2100 B.C. It was on tablet 11 that the original Mesopotamian story of the Great Flood, which pre-dates the story in the Bible, was found.

In this account, you’ll find many similarities to the biblical version of the flood. There’s a man, Utnapishtim, who is told by a god to build a boat. This god, Ea, gave Utnapishtim precise dimensions for the boat and that it was to be sealed with pitch and bitumen. Once completed, Utnapishtim’s entire family went aboard together with his craftsmen and “all the animals of the field.” Soon after, a violent storm arose, and the rest of humankind was annihilated. After the rain, the boat lodged on a mountain, and Utnapishtim released a dove, a swallow, and a raven. When the raven failed to return, he opened the ark and freed its inhabitants. He then offered a sacrifice to the gods, who smell the sweet savor and gathered around. This is just one of many stories found in the Epic of Gilgamesh that Bible readers may find familiar.

Another story from the Epic that parallels a biblical account includes that of Ninti, the Sumerian goddess of life. The story explains that she was created from the god Ea’s rib. She was created to heal Ea after he had eaten forbidden flowers. Some say this story served as the basis for the account of Eve creation from Adam’s rib in the Book of Genesis.

Religious books are some of the oldest unconventional books. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, dating from nearly 4,000 years ago, was not one book but rather a body of texts that contained spells and illustrations written on papyrus scrolls. These “books” were placed in the tombs and graves with the deceased. Each was written specifically for the individual who could afford to purchase one. These “books” were designed to guide the deceased through the dangers of the underworld, ultimately ensuring eternal life. Much of the content of the scrolls originated from concepts depicted in tomb paintings and inscriptions from as early as 2670 B.C.

Prehistoric Books

Reaching back even further in history, can we say humans living before the Egyptians and Sumerians, those living in prehistoric times, did they have books? The word “prehistoric” means before history, before writing. So, can we truthfully say that people living 35,000 years ago had books? Let’s take a look at another of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “book.”

The dictionary’s definition #3 reads, “something that yields knowledge or understanding.” Based on this definition, there were many “books” created in prehistory.

Today we have picture books that tell a story and individuals, living as long as 35,000 years ago, also told their stories through pictures. All around the globe, in places as diverse as Bulgaria, Argentina, Somalia, India, France, Spain, and Australia, cave paintings can be found. There are images of powerful bulls in the caves at Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain. Beautiful human handprints are found in the Cueva de las Manos, in Argentina. And, some of the Australian Aboriginal rock art (see above image) contains maps to local sources of water. All are examples of humans communicating with each other.

Through the centuries, the technologies may have changed, but the goal remains the same. Humans need to communicate with each other. We love to tell stories, offer advice and direction, and discuss and preserve economic and environmental information. All of which is made possible due to the book.