Historically Speaking: The Enduring Technology of the Book

Durable, stackable and skimmable, books have been the world’s favorite way to read for two millennia and counting.

The Wall Street Journal

August 3, 2023

A fragment of the world’s oldest book was discovered earlier this year. Dated to about 260 B.C., the 6-by-10-inch piece of papyrus survived thanks to ancient Egyptian embalmers who recycled it for cartonnage, a papier-mache-like material used in mummy caskets. The Graz Mummy Book, so-called because it resides in the library of Austria’s Graz University, is 400 years older than the previous record holder, a fragment of a Latin book from the 2nd century A.D.

Stitching on the papyrus shows that it was part of a book with pages rather than a scroll. Scrolls served well enough in the ancient world, when only priests and scribes used them, but as the literacy rate in the Roman Empire increased, so did the demand for a more convenient format. A durable, stackable, skimmable, stitched-leaf book made sense. Its resemblance to a block of wood inspired the Latin name caudex, “bark stem,” which evolved into codex, the word for an ancient manuscript. The 1st-century Roman poet and satirist Martial was an early adopter: A codex contained more pages than the average scroll, he told his readers, and could even be held in one hand!

Thomas Fuchs

The book developed in different forms around the world. In India and parts of southeast Asia, dried palm-leaves were sewn together like venetian blinds. The Chinese employed a similar technique using bamboo or silk until the third century A.D., when hemp paper became a reliable alternative. In South America, the Mayans made their books from fig-tree bark, which was pliable enough to be folded into leaves. Only four codices escaped the mass destruction of Mayan culture by Franciscan missionaries in the 16th century.

Gutenberg’s printing press, perfected in 1454, made that kind of annihilation impossible in Europe. By the 16th century, more than nine million books had been printed. Authorities still tried their best to exert control, however. In 1538, England’s King Henry VIII prohibited the selling of “naughty printed books” by unlicensed booksellers.

Licensed or not, the profit margins for publishers were irresistible, especially after Jean Grolier, a 16th-century Treasurer-General of France, started the fashion for expensively decorated book covers made of leather. Bookselling became a cutthroat business. Shakespeare was an early victim of book-piracy: Shorthand stenographers would hide among the audience and surreptitiously record his plays so they could be printed and sold.

Beautiful leather-bound books never went out of fashion, but by the end of the 18th century, there was a new emphasis on cutting costs and shortening production time. Germany experimented with paperbacks in the 1840s, but these were downmarket prototypes that failed to catch on.

The paperback revolution was started in 1935 by the English publisher Allen Lane, who one day found himself stuck at a train station with nothing to read. Books were too rarefied and expensive, he decided. Facing down skeptics, Lane created Penguin and proceeded to publish 10 literary novels as paperbacks, including Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” A Penguin book had a distinctive look that signaled quality, yet it cost the same as a packet of cigarettes. The company sold a million paperbacks in its first year.

Radio was predicted to mean the downfall of books; so were television, the Internet and ebooks. For the record, Americans bought over 788.7 million physical books last year. Not bad for an invention well into its third millennium.

Historically Speaking: The Royal Origins of Tennis

The strict etiquette at Wimbledon and other tournaments is a reminder that the sport’s first players were French kings and aristocrats.

The Wall Street Journal

June 15, 2023

For the 136th Wimbledon Championships, opening on July 3, lady competitors will be allowed to ignore the all-white clothing rule for the first time—though only as it applies to their undergarments. Tennis may never be the same.

The break with tradition is all the more surprising given the sport’s penchant for strict etiquette rules and dress codes. The earliest recorded version of tennis was a type of handball played by medieval monks in France. Called “jeu de paume,” “game of the palm,” it involved hitting a leather ball against the cloister wall.

Thomas Fuchs

As the sport spread beyond the monastic world, it gained a new name, “tenez,” the French word for “receive.” It had instant social cachet, since it could only be played in large, high-walled courtyards, thus narrowing the pool of players to kings and aristocrats.

Early “tenez” was not without its dangers. Legend has it that King Louis X of France, who introduced the first covered courts, took ill and died after an overly strenuous match in 1316. In 1498 another French king, Charles VIII, suffered an untimely end after banging his head on a lintel while hurrying to his tennis court.

By the 16th century, the game had evolved into something in between modern squash and tennis. Players used angled wooden rackets, and the ball could be bounced off the walls and sloping roof as well as hit over the net. This version, known as real or royal tennis, is still played at a small number of courts around the world.

The Royal Tennis Court at King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, outside London, was the most luxurious in Europe, but the sophisticated surroundings failed to elevate on-court behavior. In 1541, Sir Edmund Knyvett was condemned to have his hand chopped off for striking his opponent and drawing blood. Henry ended up granting him a reprieve—more than he did for wives two and five.

The association of tennis with royal privilege hastened its demise in the 18th century. On June 20, 1789, Louis XVI’s tennis court at Versailles hosted one of the most important events of the French Revolution. The new National Assembly gathered there after being locked out of its premises, and made a pledge, the Tennis Court Oath, not to disband until France had a constitution. It was a very brave or very foolish person who played the game after that.

Modern tennis—known at first as “lawn tennis,” since it was played on a grass court—began to emerge in the 1870s, when an eccentric British Army major named Walter Clopton Wingfield invented a version of the game using rubber balls. His name for it—“Sphairistike,” from the Greek word for ball playing—never caught on. But the social opportunities offered by tennis made it extremely popular among the upper classes.

The exclusive All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, whose championships began in 1877, inspired imitators on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, many tennis players expended nearly as much effort keeping the “wrong sort” out as they did keeping the ball in. For years, the major tennis tournaments offered no prizes and were only open to amateurs, meaning the wealthy. Professionals were relegated to a separate circuit.

Tennis’s own revolution took place in 1968, following sustained pressure from players and fans for the Grand Slam Tournaments to be open to all competitors. Fifty-five years on, the barricades—and the barriers—are still coming down.

Historically Speaking: When Royal Love Affairs Go Wrong

From Cleopatra to Edward VIII, monarchs have followed their hearts—with disastrous results.


The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2018

“Ay me!” laments Lysander in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “For aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history, / The course of true love never did run smooth.” What audience would disagree? Thwarted lovers are indeed the stuff of history and art—especially when the lovers are kings and queens.

But there were good reasons why the monarchs of old were not allowed to follow their hearts. Realpolitik and royal passion do not mix, as Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.), the anniversary of whose death falls on Aug. 12, found to her cost. Her theatrical seduction of and subsequent affair with Julius Caesar insulated Egypt from Roman imperial designs. But in 41 B.C., she let her heart rule her head and fell in love with Mark Antony, who was fighting Caesar’s adopted son Octavian for control of Rome.

Cleopatra’s demand that Antony divorce his wife Octavia—sister of Octavian—and marry her instead was a catastrophic misstep. It made Egypt the target of Octavian’s fury, and forced Cleopatra into fighting Rome on Antony’s behalf. The couple’s defeat at the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C. didn’t only end in personal tragedy: the 300-year-old Ptolemaic dynasty was destroyed, and Egypt was reduced to a Roman province.

In Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra,” Antony laments, “I am dying, Egypt, dying.” It is a reminder that, as Egypt’s queen, Cleopatra was the living embodiment of her country; their fates were intertwined. That is why royal marriages have usually been inseparable from international diplomacy.

In 1339, when Prince Pedro of Portugal fell in love with his wife’s Castilian lady-in-waiting, Inés de Castro, the problem wasn’t the affair per se but the opportunity it gave to neighboring Castile to meddle in Portuguese politics. In 1355, Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV, took the surest way of separating the couple—who by now had four children together—by having Inés murdered. Pedro responded by launching a bloody civil war against his father that left northern Portugal in ruins. The dozens of romantic operas and plays inspired by the tragic love story neglect to mention its political repercussions; for decades afterward, the Portuguese throne was weak and the country divided.

Perhaps no monarchy in history bears more scars from Cupid’s arrow than the British. From Edward II (1284-1327), whose poor choice of male lovers unleashed murder and mayhem on the country—he himself was allegedly killed with a red hot poker—to Henry VIII (1491-1547), who bullied and butchered his way through six wives and destroyed England’s Catholic way of life in the process, British rulers have been remarkable for their willingness to place personal happiness above public responsibility.

Edward VIII (1894 -1972) was a chip off the block, in the worst way. The moral climate of the 1930s couldn’t accept the King of England marrying a twice-divorced American. Declaring he would have Wallis Simpson or no one, Edward plunged the country into crisis by abdicating in 1936. With European monarchies falling on every side, Britain’s suddenly looked extremely vulnerable. The current Queen’s father, King George VI, quite literally saved it from collapse.

According to a popular saying, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” That goes double when the lovers wear royal crowns.