History of Books

The history of books begins millennia ago. Writing was invented in Mesopotamia around 3200 BC. At first writing was in the form of pictographs or ideograms, and letters as phonetic signs appeared much later.

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History of Books in Ancient Times

Writing was a revolution to humankind – now one person could write something, and another person could repeat what had been written. Accurate communicating of information over distances, and time, became possible.

People wrote on many kinds of surfaces: fabric, metal, pottery, shells, leaves, clay tablets, papyrus, bone, wax tablets… Paper was not invented until 1st century AD. The invention was Chinese, and paper was made of vegetable fiber (bark and hemp).

History of books really begins when stories began to be written down in scrolls.

Only a few people could read in ancient times. In ancient Egypt, for example, less than one percent of the population was literate. These people mostly belonged to the elite. Still, the early scrolls could be called mass media of sorts. Important writings were archived, and students learned to read and write by copying existing works.

The first books were not in book form. Scrolls were used for lengthier works of literature.  These were scrolled out horizontally, but as the scrolls could be very long, the text had to be arranged into easily readable columns. The problem was, that searching for a specific reference within that scroll was difficult without page numbering.

The earliest surviving papyrus dates comes from Egypt, and dates to the 1st Dynasty (3100 – 2890 BC), but it did not emerge out of nowhere – it has been estimated that papyrus was in use already 4000 BC.  It remained in use for thousands of years, and spread to Greece in about 650 BC.

Scrolls Into Books

The book in the form we know it, replaced the scroll between the second and fourth centuries AD. The papyrus or parchment was cut into sheets, and attached together at the back (a Roman invention, it seems). The Latin word for book, ”codex” refers to blocks of wood, between which the pages were bound. This form of the book has remained till today.

I am sure the researchers were overjoyed – now there were page numbers, and table of contents so that information could be found quickly.

Gradually paper replaced papyrus and parchment, but the books continued to be written by hand.

There was no copyright as we know it. Authors might become famous because of their literary works, but texts were modified at will.

Literature and books were respected in the ancient world. Libraries collected writings: the most famous perhaps the library of Alexandria. Other famous libraries were those of Hadrian, Athens, Pergamon, Pantainos, Rhodes and Antioch. These libraries had veritable workshops just for copying and translating texts – a practice that continued in the European Christian monasteries later.

There has always been cencorship – one of the earliest examples are the works of Pythagoras. His writings were burned for being agnostic – it wasn’t acceptable those days to wonder whether gods existed.

Also Emperor Diocletian had Christian texts destroyed at 304 AD. And Christians destroyed writings too, especially those they considered dangerous for their faith.

Latin remained the language of literature for a long time, caused by the expansion of the Roman empire.

 History of Books After Rome

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After the fall of the Roman empire, it was the monasteries that kept books safe, and had them copied and distributed farther. Reading  was an important activity for the monks, as was the copying and illustrating of manuscripts. Naturally, the monasteries concentrated on the sacred texts. If a text was considered dangerous to the faith, it was not copied. One of my favorite books comes to mind here. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose addresses this very subject.

The manuscript could also be scraped clean for reuse, and this practice destroyed many an ancient manuscript – a sad loss for the history of books…

 Out of the Monasteries

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When times in Europe settled somewhat, the history of books takes another turn. Now it was time for the books to come out to the world. manuscripts began to be made outside of monasteries too, especially in the big university cities. The time for this new development was the 12th century. Other types of literature emerged for the use of law, commerce and entertainment. Novels and poetry began to be written.

This is also when the first book dealers appeared, because the elite began to collect books and establish libraries. These libraries were valued booty in warfare.

Even with paper becoming more common, parchment remained the material of choice for the more valuable books. A simple reason for this was that the paper was made of hemp and flax, and wasn’t of high enough quality for illustrations. The Arabs introduced paper to Europe through Spain.

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Printing with engraved wooden blocks was invented in China around the 9th century AD. Still, it wasn’t until 1450’s, when Gutenberg invented his printing press, which used cast metal type, that the number of books began to increase in ever increasing numbers.  His printing method made it faster cheaper to produce books, though the pages still had to be composed by hand on a wooden press.

And Latin was still the most common language in literature.

History of Books – Modern Times

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The industrial era created the book as entertainment for the masses. Metal printing presses, steam paper mills and steam powered press were the important technical innovations at the beginning of the 19th century. Book prices dropped even more. Literacy increased, especially among women and children, which created new literary genres.

Then came the 20th century, and in the 1960’s computers stepped into the picture. Technology has developed fast, and these days it is possible to print books only on demand (Print on Demand or POD). If a book has been saved in a digital form, it doesn’t need to ”go out of print” ever again.

These days the electronic book, or e-book, is the latest revolution in book publishing. It is so convenient to store hundreds of books in one reading device, where they won’t take up shelf space. I buy most of my novels in electronic format these days. But I know I will always be buying old-fashioned books, hardcover and paperback. Especially nonfiction books are something I prefer in the traditional form.

And then there’s the Internet. It gives the world an opportunity to read and connect with an amazing amount of information these days.

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But let us not forget the oldest form of storytelling – the oral one. And in this respect we have come back a full circle to the earliest times – through audio books.

The history of books has is certainly not over. In all likelihood the book will develop into new directions we might not have any idea about yet. But one thing is certain: reading books will remain one of the major joys of life to people.

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