8 Ways Books are Better Than Scrolls: eBooks of the Ancient World

book cover of Libraries in the Ancient WorldWhile trying to figure out how ancient books were repaired, I came across the delightful Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson. It’s a small, friendly sort of book, clearly written and even the black and white illustrations are fascinating.

If you asked for a book in an ancient library, a page would bring you a bucketful of rolled-up parchment or papyrus with tags on them. You’d sit down and rummage through to find the chapter you wanted to read.

Chapter 8: From Roll to Codex is all about how a change in reading technology affects readers. What did the change mean for book lovers of long ago?

  1. Good for travel–no fragile edges to crumble, no tags to fall off and get lost.
  2. Space-saving–Carry more information in a smaller space because the writers can use both sides of the paper. Twice the capacity. 🙂
  3. Read with one hand–a scroll takes two hands: one to unroll and one to re-roll.
  4. Bookmarks–mark any page or even any line.
  5. Find information quickly–just flip to the page, no more endless scrolling.
  6. “Public libraries had to adjust” to the new format. Instead of cubbies holding three layers of scrolls max, books could be stacked up on top of each other.
  7. “Standard” took a while–Casson gives the example of a book that had quires–the smaller bundles of pages sewn together to make a book–in all different sizes: 5-sheet, 4-sheet, 1-sheet, 5-sheet, 5-sheet, 8-sheet.
  8. Authors had to advertise or explain the new format. Some things never change. 🙂

This little slender book, at Tryphon’s store,

costs just four coppers, and not a penny more.

Is four too much? It puts you in the red?

Then pay him two; he’ll still come out ahead.

–Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World, Yale University Press, 2001, pg. 104.

Sound familiar?

Casson studied Egyptian literature by era to see how many were scrolls and how many were codices (books as we know them). Christians were early adopters of the new books. Bibles were made only as codices from the 2nd or 3rd centuries on.

bar chart showing % books versus scrolls by century in Egyptian 'finds'.
By studying Egyptian ‘finds’, Lionel Casson figured out how long it took Egyptian readers to adopt the ‘codex’–the book form–over a roll of parchment or papyrus: about 400 years.

Just for fun, compare to these e-book adoption percentages for U.S. readers (17%, 23%, 28%) and the increase in tablet use for reading:


There’s a great photo of a 7th century wooden writing tablet with ten leaves (pg. 127). It looks like a stack of pioneer school child slates fastened together. Here’s an example from Pinterest to give you the idea.


If that’s what a notebook was like, no wonder everyone wanted parchment books instead.

Hope you enjoyed this field trip to the ancient world!

Happy reading and writing!


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Four Ways Writing a Novel is Different than Reading One

outdoor steel staircase with blooming heather filling in the risers
One of my favorite collaborative efforts. Steel and heather. Alfter, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2018.

Reading is a collaborative and creative activity. The reader is in partnership with the writer, and they create an experience together. Writers are told to read, read, read. . .to improve their writing. Good advice. 🙂

But I’ve recently noticed four ways writing feels very different from reading.

  1. The set-up. Ideally, the early chapters go by in a kind of blur, so that later, readers never realize writers used up a quarter of the book to get them into the story. As readers we’re busy working, getting acclimated to the story world, figuring out who’s who, and what’s what. When we read, we don’t notice how long it takes.

This is why it’s easy to write the story set-up too short. Or way too long. If we aren’t allowed to write this story’s exciting part, we’ll write the exciting part of the one that happened before. This is called backstory or information-dumping. (Attractive, no?)

Re-reading is a much better way to find out what set-up is and how long it takes. If a writer can entice the reader in–all over again–with the ordinary part, that’s craft. The best writers leave a little space and time for the readers’ imagination to get cooking, without letting them notice.

2. Pacing. By definition, the writer is the first one to boldly go down the story path. Joyce Carol Oates describes writing fiction as slashing your way through the jungles with a machete. E. L. Doctorow compared it to driving by your headlights. Keeping writerly despair at bay must add something to the reader’s experience, but I don’t know what it is. Tension, voice, scope, meaning, pacing? (A finished book? 🙂

3. Foreshadowing. (A.K.A. why it’s annoying to watch movies with writers.) It’s really hard–impossible–to foreshadow as you write. Once you know the cannon is going off at the end, it’s easy to add a box of confetti in a dimly lit corner of your brilliant opening scene. 20:20 hindsight. You just “put it in”.

4. Writing things inside-out and backwards. Judging by dreams and first drafts, I think the imagination doesn’t care much about what comes first. For me, as a writer, ‘story stuff’ gets sent up any old which way.

In a recent draft of my middle grade fairy-tale/fantasy, several chapters were clearly *cough* in the wrong order. Switching them around made my main characters stronger. Suddenly, their actions set the plot dominoes in motion. Yay!

Some writing friends compare story-telling to pulling yarn out of a skein. Their imaginations must be better trained. Personally, I have to slice the story up and tie it together, again and again. Judging from the overwhelming reaction to this blog post, a lot of other writers have the same problem.

But aside from all of these technical difficulties–oops, challenges–writing can sometimes feel the same as reading. Writing ‘in the zone’ or ‘in flow’ or in the grip of a story feels like being taken on a journey.

I think that’s what makes writing so addictive. Imagination is both a muscle to exercise and a dream to follow.

What’s your take? Does this all seem hopelessly obvious? Have you ever wondered about particular differences between reading and writing?


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Things keep falling down. . .and then the harvest comes.

Broken and fallen pine trees in the forest after extreme winds
Pines downed by strong winds in Kottenforst forest. ©Jan Decher, 2018

In January, we had heavy winds for this area. They were impressive, but I think winds are much stronger in other, drier parts of the world. The trees here don’t seem to have deep roots, considering their size. It rains constantly. Trees don’t have to work for water, growing down deep to find it during a drought. So when the winds come, even the oaks topple.

There’s a lot of bad news floating around and winter is dark, so January needed a lot of persistence.

person walking across downed oak log like a natural bridge
Walking on a downed oak tree. © Jan Decher, 2018.
pine tree lying across road after windstorm
Sometimes there’s a road block. © Laurel Decher, 2018
Huge oak and other trees fallen after the storm and tangled together. The root ball from the oak is visible and taller than a man.
When the tree falls, it’s over. © Laurel Decher, 2018

This month, we went walking in the forest again. This harvest of logs made me see the forest damage in a different way.

What is ready to harvest in our lives that we haven’t noticed? What (who :)) has grown up in our lives that we are grateful for?

We don’t have to wait for a “storm” to point it out.

  • What do you want to do?
  • Who do you want to love?
  • What do you want to make?
  • What do you want to see or hear or touch or taste?

We can be grateful for it now. I think being ‘grateful’ is like visiting a garden, checking on the chickens, and fixing the family credenza so it lasts a little longer. Gratitude is a way of nurturing something while it’s still small, so it can grow up.

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn had a recent interview called Balancing Craft and Commerce. Some of it was about programmer and author Nathan Barry’s ConvertKit e-mail marketing service, but the part that resonated with me was this:

We didn’t sign up to be writers or creators or entrepreneurs to get to a certain income level and then check out. You’ve got to keep pushing those limits and you have to keep learning but at the same time, you have to do it with gratitude. Ambition and gratitude together, I think, are really, really powerful and then you don’t get trapped in a frustrating cycle.

Five piles of freshly cut logs lining the side of the road to the vanishing point.
A storm turns into harvest. © Laurel Decher, 2018

How has your winter been so far? Does it feel like trees are falling everywhere? Or can you see signs of hope?


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One Dollar Glasses

girl with a smile wearing one dollar glasses
A small invention that sheds a whole new light on things.

The other day, I got my first pair of reading glasses. All of a sudden, reading, computers, knitting–even the fine print at the store–is SO much clearer. I’ve had regular glasses since the third grade, so you’d think I wouldn’t be surprised, but it’s easy to forget how much difference a new pair of glasses can make.

When I went to pick them up, I saw a brochure for One Dollar Glasses with lots of happy people sporting new glasses. Here’s the link to the English version of the website that has fewer photos.

My optician told me he’d been to a workshop to learn to make a pair of glasses out of one piece of wire. It was challenging even for people trained to make glasses. You only get one shot.

But it doesn’t need electricity and it means people don’t have to wear glasses that almost work because they’re someone else’s old glasses.

The raw materials for each pair cost one dollar which means the sales tax from my recent glasses would pay for 30 pair.

It makes me happy to think that 30 people could finally see what they’re looking at! Hope they have good books to read! 🙂

If you’d also like to help someone see what they’re missing, here’s the donation information. (PayPal, credit cards, and direct bank transfer all work).

Thanks for reading!



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Join me over at SCBWI Germany + Austria: I’m blogging about doodling

Hand-drawn doodle in pen and colored pencil with the heading 'Things I want to try, visit, read, remember because of the SCBWI Europolitan Conference Belgium 2017'
My doodle for the SCBWI Europolitan Conference in Belgium. ©Laurel Decher, 2017.

Hanging out with all of the illustrators at the 2017 SCBWI Europolitan Conference in Belgium must have rubbed off on me. I created the doodle above on the train ride home.

Just what I needed, a quick way to ‘revisit’ the conference in the months to come, without wading through pages of notes.

Read the rest of the post here: “Doodle Your Way into the Writing Life”.


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Olives and Antifreeze ALWAYS come in Two Colors except when They Don’t.

Spring in Sicily. 500 green olive trees against a blue sky.
These 500 olive trees have nothing to do with antifreeze colors, so this is foreshadowing. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We have a supposedly American car, a Ford Fusion, but it lives in Germany, so it has to have German antifreeze. Natch.

Instead of 5-gallon, yellow, Prestone jugs, Germany has white, soda-bottle-sized KĂĽhlerfrostschutz bottles.

I was a little leery about KĂĽhlerfrostschutz, because buying oil for the car was a major research project, even after I copied down all the numbers from my two-volume car owner’s manual. I’ve lived in places with cold winters all of my life, so I get the 10W40 and 5W30 and such (thanks, Dad!).

Still, I was unprepared to be an oil buyer. In Germany, the make and model of my car influences the kind of oil. Really? Remember, it’s a Ford Fusion, not an airplane.

Newsflash: Germany is the land of car drivers. I somehow missed that. I was taken in by the excellent train system.

So, I was cautious about making an impulsive antifreeze purchase. The wrong kind might give my car culture shock. At a local building mart, I asked which antifreeze I should buy, figuring the Hellweg* would be as close to Target or Wallmart as I could get.

*(The name doesn’t mean what you’re thinking–it actually means path of light, but that’s only true at Christmas decoration season. The other building mart is called Obi which sounds like Star Wars, but isn’t.)

My first advisor said he thought the blue antifreeze was for newer cars and red was for older ones, but–maybe because he was half my age–we weren’t quite clear on what ‘older’ meant.

My second advisor said if the car had ‘red’ already in it, it should always get red, because you NEVER mix them. This seemed like an astonishingly simple answer for a car-related topic in Germany.

I asked if there could possibly be another color, but he was very firm: “There’s red and there’s blue.”

So I bought ‘red’, diluted it 50:50 with water, filled up my car, and felt generally virtuous and good-stewardly.

At the grocery store, I found the same antifreeze for half the price. Forget all those rules about what to buy where. What’s worse, I found another color: purple!

What if the red and blue got mixed together one day at the factory and. . .presto, new product? I can’t tell you. I shut my eyes to the purple. It’s the color of Byzantine Emperors and has nothing to do with lowly writers. I remain true to ‘red’.

While at the grocery store, I tried to buy black olives for salad. They all were labelled “geschwärzt” meaning ‘blacked’ like. . .uh, shoe-black.

I always thought black olives were ripe forms of green ones, in the same way that red sweet peppers are ripe forms of green peppers.

Another newsflash: Black olives can be simply ripe olives, but some have Eisen-II-Gluconat (E 579/ferrous gluconate) added to the brine to make them blacker or to ‘fix’ the black color. Evidently, this doesn’t make black olives a good source of dietary iron, but I’m not sure why not.

The California Olive Committee describes something similar, so it’s not just in Germany.

Even if you don’t like olives, the photos in this “Beginner’s Guide to Olives: 14 Varieties to Try” will make you want to go visit all of these places where they grow.

If you’d like to read about the 500 olive trees from the beginning of this post, you can find their story here.

Best wishes with your purchases of whatever color! May your 2018 be filled with happy meals featuring a healthy Mediterranean diet and safe transportation!


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10 MORE Great Books for the Young Readers (9-12 yrs) on Your List

graphic of book covers described in post

Need book recommendations for the 9 to 12 year old readers on your gift list? Here are the 10 books for this age group I really, really enjoyed in 2017.

This list has heartwarming adventure stories about orphans, the Middle Ages, life in the theater, and adventures at sea. Quite a few of these will make you laugh out loud!

For more about a book, click on the title to read my GoodReads review.

Book cover for EMELIN with boy and girl in monks' robes against a dark snowy monastery1. EMELIN by Jackie Randall is a story of a girl with a rare talent for illustrating books. Her talent is the only thing that stands between her and lifetime of hunger.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love the Middle Ages!
  • Readers who love scrappy heroines!
  • Readers who love books about books!


2. THE INQUISITOR’S TALE by Adam Gidwitz is an exciting story with entertaining illustrations–arrows shoot across one of the pages–and three very different children and a magical dog.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love the Middle Ages + magic!
  • Readers who love funny + true characters + amazing plot twists!
  • Readers of graphic novels/comic books who enjoy fast-paced, illustrated adventures.

3. E. G. Foley’s THE LOST HEIR (Book 1 of The Gryphon Chronicles) is a historical fantasy set in a fantastic Victorian London and is charming all the way through. E.G. Foley–the husband and wife team who author these books–clearly know what young readers will enjoy.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who like to fly!
  • Readers who love unicorns, mermaids, villains, fairies and Queen Victoria!
  • Readers who want every chapter to deliver!

4. Gary L. Blackwood’s THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER is the exciting and twisty story of a scrappy orphan boy called “Widge” who gets the job of stealing Mr. Shakespeare’s newest play.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love theater!
  • Readers who love backstage secrets!
  • Readers who love series!


5. Holly Goldberg Sloan’s SHORT is the hilarious story of a girl who is short for her age. She gets a part as a Munchkin in the local production of The Wizard of Oz. Short people are calling the shots and that changes everything!

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love theater!
  • Readers who love to fly!
  • Readers who love when kids are in charge!


6. Linda Sue Park’s A SINGLE SHARD is about the orphan, Tree-Ear, who wants to “throw” the famous pottery vases that are beautiful enough for royalty. A philosophical, whimsical, and beautiful book!

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love the film, THE KARATE KID!
  • Readers who love the Middle Ages + Asia!
  • Readers who want to know what life was like for an orphan in Korea a long time ago!

7. Lauren Wolk’s BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA is a warm adventure story with lots of fascinating angles! I loved this book.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS and sea adventures!
  • Readers who love ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and warm friendships and adoptive families!
  • Readers who love buried treasure!


8. Ellen Booraem’s TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD is a wacky story that really shouldn’t work at all and the perfect cure for a gloomy winter day when you need to laugh out loud!

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love to laugh!
  • Readers who love when the underdog wins!
  • Readers who love colorful families!

9. Jessica Day George’s PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL is a re-telling of the fairytale called the twelve dancing princesses in English and die zertanzte Schuhe in German. I actually liked the second book in the series even more: THE PRINCESS OF GLASS.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love fairy tale re-tellings!
  • Readers who love dancing (and knitting heroes!)
  • Readers who love series!

10. Andrew Clement’s FRINDLE

Both of my children really enjoyed this book when they were younger. I finally read it and it’s so much fun! Excellent and funny.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love school stories!
  • Readers who want to make their mark on the world!
  • Readers who love stories about what happens when you don’t follow the “rules”!

BONUS: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer’s THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND (Young Reader’s Edition) is the true story of a boy who reads about physics in his tiny village library after a famine means he can’t pay school fees any more. He’s determined to build a tower that will keep his family from ever going hungry again.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love libraries!
  • Readers who love true heroes!
  • Readers who want to be inspired!

WARNING for sensitive readers: there’s a very sad part about William’s dog that could be challenging. I skipped over some parts during the famine times, but the rest of the story is perfect for all readers!


If your voracious readers have read EVERYTHING and you need MORE, here are my 2016 top 10 books for Middle Grade readers (9 to 12).

Best wishes for wonderful holidays with your loved ones!

Happy reading and writing!

See you in 2018!


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