No Books without Cheese.

The tweeter known as Incunabula has an enjoyable thread on the history of books:

Cheese meant female sheep & cows were usually more valuable than male ones which were accordingly slaughtered young as they were not worth feeding through the winter. The skins of these young animals was used to make vellum, giving us the basic material of the European book. Vellum tends to buckle & ripple, it doesn’t lie absolutely flat like paper. So it was bound between heavy wooden boards to keep it flat – this is the origin of the hardback book, a book format – expensive, hard to make, & prone to damage – almost never seen outside Europe. Ultimately, the hardback book exists because of cheese.

Cheese 🧀 is one of the 5 things the Western book as we know it depends on. The other four are snails 🐌, Jesus ✝️, underwear 🩲 and spectacles 👓. If even one of these things was absent, the book you hold in your hand today would look completely different. I’ll explain why.

Don’t expect a scholarly history, but I learned some stuff. I got it via MeFi, where maxwelton said “Yes, interesting, but seems a bit too much a ‘just so’ story”; the poster responded: “Agree – called it ‘fun’ because it’s like one of those Adam Curtis documentaries that completely overstretches to try to piece together a narrative, but is still entertaining to watch.” Quite so.


  1. David Marjanović says

    Read the responses, too.

  2. You mean to the original Twitter thread?

  3. David Marjanović says

    Of course. Didn’t see you had only linked to the unrolled thread.

  4. Of course.

    You might have meant the MeFi thread.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve been trying to interpret “No books without cheese” as a political slogan. I suppose it could be a version of the Brechtian Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.

    Though he also said Hungriger, greif nach dem Buch: es ist eine Waffe, so he probably wouldn’t have approved.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Hungriger, greif nach dem Buch: es ist eine Waffe

    “Hungry one, reach for the book: it is a waffle.”

  7. Made me laugh!

  8. David Marjanović says

    Ah, I had overlooked the MeFi thread entirely. So the spectacles are a tradeoff with the price of paper (and perhaps ink).

    The speculation about holding a codex with one hand while preaching with the other doesn’t seem as silly to me, though, as it seems to some of the commenters. I’ve been to conferences where the microphone on the lectern didn’t work and we had to hold a wireless one ourselves. I can hold a microphone to my mouth while talking for over 10 minutes straight. Lots of people are literally not capable of this – they gesticulate with both hands, involuntarily, so they move the microphone a meter away from their mouth again and again and again and can’t apparently do anything about it. Imagine both hands holding a scroll…

  9. Richard Hershberger says

    This reminds me of the old James Burke series Connections: fun, and possibly a gateway for potential history geeks.

  10. I note that the conversion process seems to have broken four out of five emoji.

  11. Thanks. We checked some weird Unicode to make sure everything came through, but I didn’t think to check emoji.

  12. I recopied the sentence and it looks fine now. (For posterity, the only emoji that had emerged intact from the fires of the conversion process was the Jesus Bible. Praise the Lord!)

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