In the past years, a number of micro histories have traced the development of human civilization around a common, simple item. For instance, Mark Kurlansky published two books, one tracing the effect of salt on human and animal evolution, and the other examining the role cod has played in history. (See Beyond the Book.) In a like way, Nicholas Basbanes' On Paper traces the development and impact of paper on civilizations.
Our spoken languages came first and later the need, in many places, to represent these languages in visual symbolic form. This permitted record-keeping, as well as the transmission of traditions, values, stories and systems from one generation to later ones. Many writing surfaces were used to preserve these "books," a word etymologically derived from the Germanic name bóc or bók, for the beech tree, whose bark was a convenient medium for the symbols which...
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