IN the end, the rectangular shape of books all comes down to the fact that cows, goats and sheep are rectangular too. It may seem obvious when you think about the centuries-old history of books, of book-making and paper-making (and parchment, hence the animal reference) but, if it's not obvious, then Keith Houston's latest work cannot be recommended too highly.

It's called The Book, and a splendidly comprehensive and tactile object it is, too. It's not just that it's printed on creamy, Taiwanese-made, acid-free, PH-neutral paper, is set in an elegant font and has numerous fine illustrations, or that its covers are machine-made from paper glued over heavy cardboard.

It's also that the different elements that make up a book are all introduced by name when they first occur: obvious things like 'author's name' and 'extract', of course, but slightly more enigmatic presences, as well: frontmatter heads, and binding tape, and ad cards (the latter being the page given over to the author's previous works).

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You can learn a lot from this book.

"These [descriptive] headings almost didn't make it into the finished edition," Fife-born Houston concedes. "I think there was a misunderstanding between the designer and the compositor. I think the compositor thought that they were simply explanatory. 'No, no', he was told. 'They have to go in, they have to go in'."

Houston, who works in medical visualisation software in London, observes in the book that there have been many, many books on bookmaking and book history. What made him decide that another one was needed? "It came from the first book I wrote [Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks]. I ended up going back to the fourth century BC, following not just punctuation but also writing.

"When I was talking to my agent about what we might want to do next, this [new book] just kind of came out of it. I guess it's a fairly boring and procedural thing to have to do but you look at what's out there already. Is there a gap? In this case there was. There are lots of great books about how books are made but most of them are for an academic audience ... the whole idea [about this book] is that it should be readable, at least, for a lay audience and, hopefully, occasionally entertaining."

The story begins with the invention of the paper-like material papyrus (it is "every bit as Egyptian as the pyramids or mummies that have since eclipsed it – and it was, in its day, considerably more important than either."). It moves on to parchment, the invention of which is customarily ascribed to King Eumenes II of Pergamon, ruler of a Greek city-state in what today is northwestern Turkey. The library he founded had some 200,000 volumes at its peak, but parchment's wildfire-like progress across the rest of the world actually started in Rome, courtesy of Crates, the library's chief scholar, who visited Rome as part of a delegation headed by Eumenes's brother, Attalus. The habit of writing on leather, however, predates Eumenes II: Egyptian texts dated to between 2550 BCE and 2450 BCE refer to the use of leather as a writing surface. A considerably later document mentions the animals whose hides were turned into parchment: not just cattle, sheep, donkeys and pigs but also lions, leopards, hippos and hyenas.

And so, down the centuries, we witness the rise of the papermakers, the development of text, the history of bookmaking. The index gives a flavour of the mesmerisingly wide-ranging nature of these intertwining strands: the bubonic plague, Dante Alighieri, Albrecht Dürer, Ovid's Metamorphoses, William Burke - and even, at one point, Samuel Clemens.

For his research Houston, 38, consulted archives and such experts as Edinburgh-based Chrissie Heughan, a noted exponent of hand-cast paper. He also spent much time at the city's National Library of Scotland, "which effectively has everything that has been published in the UK."

It's interesting to be reminded that, though Johannes Gutenberg might be the 'father of printing' he was not the [italics] inventor [italics] of printing; there are 8,500-year-old stone seals, found in Iraq, with which marks were made on clay jars and boxes. Even movable type, in which Gutenberg has come to be seen as a pioneer, was a practice known to the Chinese, some four centuries earlier.

Says Houston: "I had a vague idea that this was the case, but hadn't realised to what extent this was actually so. I went to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz after completing the book, and they had a Chinese type-case. It was enormous. If you look at a standard, Gutenberg-style movable type-case, it's maybe the same size of the desk I'm sitting at, stacked one above the other.

"The Chinese type-case ... you stood up in the middle of it and you were faced with these enormous cases on all sides. You were surrounded by a circular booth almost entirely filled with type. Clearly, the number of [Chinese] characters was the problem: that's what prevented the Chinese method from taking off. Gutenberg was lucky in that he had a fairly limited Latin alphabet to deal with."

Houston writes that after a thousand years as the world's most important form of written record, the book as we know it, faces an uncertain future, its existence threatened by computers and e-books. The Book, however, is coming out as an e-book. "This is an interesting point," Houston acknowledges. "Shady Characters suffered slightly in e-book form because it couldn't really deal with special characters very well. A lot of the odd marks of punctuation that don't exist in the standard character set were just rendered as tiny little images. As soon as you flipped from a light background to a dark background, they looked very odd and quite blocky.

"I have come up against, I think, the traditional publishing model, which is that e-books are a derivative product ... The problem with The Book in e-book form is that it does refer to physical books. It talks, literally, about the book you're holding. Now, that will possibly read in a slightly odd way, but I hope the reader will have the wherewithal to find a book, to inspect it as they're reading it. It's odd to think that my book will be floating around in this weird, ethereal, formless shape when the physical instance of it is so nice."

So are books under serious long-term threat? "I honestly don't know,” says Houston. Books are a first-class mechanism for holding and conveying information but are almost transparent, in that when you hold one, you don’t think of two millennia of human history. e-books “add an extra layer of utility, portability and robustness onto what comes with a physical book. But if I’m doing research I much prefer to have a pile of physical books beside me.

“An academic paper works well online but a book doesn’t,” he continues. “I don’t think the existence of electronic readers for text will threaten the book. There’s something about a book’s format, about a narrative block of text arranged in a deliberately linear way, designed to be read from start to end. As long as that persists, as long as we’re happy to read novels and narrative non-fiction books from start to end, I think the paper book will be fine.”

That said, he bought a paper edition of the venerable Chicago Manual of Style but now wishes he’d bought the electronic subscription instead. “Of all the reference books I had to use,” he says with an audible sigh, “it’s the most frustrating to find things in. So reference books - yes, it’s probably okay for them to be replaced by e-books or web pages.”

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of our Time, W.W. Norton, £18.99. Keith Houston will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 16 (4pm). www.edbookfest.co.uk/