Book Review – Books Before Typography

Books Before Typography by Frederick W. Hamilton

Published by the Committee on Education, United Typothetae of America, Chicago, Ilinois,1918.

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by Noel Atzmiller

 Did you know that ancient Peruvians used a series of knots that they tied on colored cords to convey messages? What is the difference between an ideogram and a phonogram? Which people are credited with originating an alphabet that is considered by many as the “common mother” of many alphabets used today? What is papyrus, and how was it made?

I found the answers to these fascinating questions (and many more) in Books Before Typography. Frederick Hamilton, the author, composed this document as part of a textbook collection for use in trade school classes. The entire collection, titledTypographic Technical Series for Apprentices, contained 64 publications, each focusing on a single topic that would benefit students of typography.

If you are interested in the origin of the alphabet, the development of writing materials, or the progression of producing documents on scrolls and then into books, Books Before Typography provides an easy-to-read and absorbing account of these topics and more. Six short chapters deliver enough information to explain the topics clearly without encumbering the reader with overwhelming details.

Chapter Five, Ancient and Medieval Libraries, was particularly interesting. Hamilton starts by telling about the library owned by Rameses the Great, 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. The author’s descriptions then move through history and recount large document collections developed by the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantine Empire.Following this, he dedicates several pages to describing the crucial contribution of monasteries in preserving and producing literature in medieval times. Hamilton’s historical narrative continues with an account of great libraries in the 13th and 14th centuries that were in thehands of private owners (usually royalty) and universities.

This document was produced as a textbook. Consequently, the book contains several questions for the instructor to use in examinations. Hamilton also includes a complete list of documents in the Typographic Technical Series. Topics include tool and machine descriptions, hand and machine composition, correct literary composition, the history of printing and accounting. Many of these documents would also provide hours of captivating reading.

I obtained this book after searching for free ebooks on a prominent Internet book seller’s website. This public domain document was prepared in electronic format by PROJECT GUTENBERG, an organization that creates electronic versions of works from public domain print editions. I think this book is a “great read,” with fascinating information that should appeal to many technical communicators. Check it out!