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Hidebound: The Grisly Invention of Parchment

Keith Houston | W. W. Norton & Company | December 1, 2016 | 4,720 words

While most of the Old World was writing on papyrus, bamboo, and silk, Europe carved its own gruesome path through the history books.

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Hidebound: The Grisly Invention of Parchment

While most of the Old World was writing on papyrus, bamboo, and silk, Europe carved its own gruesome path through the history books.
Fresco of the Last Judgment, with animal skin. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Keith Houston | The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time | W. W. Norton & Company | August 2016 | 18 minutes (4,720 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from The Book, by Keith Houston. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

To an ancient Egyptian of the third century BCE, the rolls of papyrus on which the country recorded its history, art, and daily business would have been of all-consuming importance. Scrolls made from papyrus were the medium for hundreds of thousands of books lodged at Alexandria’s wondrous library, and blank papyrus sheets were one of the chief exports to Egypt’s friends, allies, and trading partners across the Mediterranean. But papyrus’s 3,000-year monopoly was about to come under threat. Invented by Egypt’s upstart Hellenic neighbors and made from animal hides at great cost in sweat and blood, parchment was smooth, springy, and resilient where papyrus was rough, brittle, and prone to fraying. Its rise at papyrus’s expense, however, had little to do with the ergonomics of its use or the economics of its manufacture and everything to do with ambitious pharaohs who ignored the cardinal rule of military leadership: never get involved in a land war in Asia.

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