One Hundred Rare Book Terms
Octavo — Paste-downs
Octavo: A book format, commonly abbreviated 8º or 8mo. The octavo requires three folds to produce and is the predecessor of the modern paperback, as it is often pocket-sized and portable. In an 1813 letter, Jane Austen declared her preference for the octavo format with her usual brio: “Ladies who read those enormous great stupid thick quarto volumes which one always sees in the breakfast parlour there must be acquainted with everything in the world. I detest a quarto. Capt. Pasley's book is too good for their society. They will not understand a man who condenses his thoughts into an octavo.”
Ostracon: A shard of pottery used as a writing surface. Ostraca were used by the ancient Egyptians and later cultures; they are distinct from clay tablets in that they are written not while the clay is wet but after it has been fired and turned into pottery.
Palm leaf book: A book made of palm leaves. Palm leaf books were common in India and Southeast Asia: the leaves were trimmed, flattened, and polished smooth with sand, after which holes were drilled into the leaves and the resulting stack could be bound together with a cord or rod. Palm leaf books were protected by wooden covers. Tibetan books, although they are now written on paper, still mimic the distinctive shape of palm leaves.
Pamphlet: A booklet or leaflet, typically containing information or arguments about a single subject. The invention of the printing press facilitated “pamphlet wars” where pamphlets would be published to directly refute or support recently published pamphlets. Perhaps because of this, many pamphlets were and are published anonymously.
Paper: A writing material made of plant fibers that have been reduced to pulp, diluted in water, and shaped into a sheet. Paper was invented in ancient China, probably around 100 BCE. The technology came to the Middle East in the 8th century CE and from there to Europe, arriving with the Moors in Spain in the 12th century. In Europe, the pulp used for paper was usually linen until the 1840s, at which point it began to be replaced by wood pulp.
Papyrus: A writing material composed of (and named after) the reeds of a river plant native to Africa. Papyrus was the writing material of choice throughout the Mediterranean for centuries, first by the ancient Egyptians and subsequently by the Greeks and Romans.
Parchment: A writing material made of specially scraped and treated animal skins, usually sheep, goat, or calf. It is not tanned, as leather is, and tends to be thinner, but retains many of the properties that make leather so durable. The scraping process commonly results in the two sides of the parchment having different textures: the external side, called the “hair side,” tends to be smoother to the touch while the inner side, called the “flesh side,” often has a soft, almost fuzzy quality. The Hebrews were early adopters of parchment, using a special variant of it for their Torah scrolls starting in the second century BCE. Parchment supplanted papyrus as the writing material of choice in the first and second centuries CE and was frequently used for bookbinding even after its use as a writing material waned.
Paste-downs: The endleaves that have been pasted onto the inside of the covers.