The History of the Book
With World Book Day – an annual event commissioned by UNESCO in 1995 to promote reading and publishing – being celebrated across the United Kingdom and Ireland recently (7th March), it is only fitting for us to dive into the history of book production as well as the future of the book into a digital and virtual forms, in order to better understand the circulation of ideas to stimulate our intellectual development throughout human history.
Throughout history, the book as both object and medium for the production, circulation, and preservation of ideas for most of the last 5,000 years has been instrumental in shaping our intellectual development from classical civilisation to the present.
In academic study, the history of the book is a discipline within humanities studies that explores the production, transmission, circulation and dissemination of text from antiquity to the present day.
The production of the book starts with the invention of paper or papyrus in Ancient Egypt (below) around 3,000 B.C.E. Whilst this time, papyrus was the main medium used to inscribe writings known as hieroglyphs, since the dawn of civilisation humankind has been engagement with aspects of storytelling, writing and record keeping through epigraphs and inscriptions found within the archaeological sites of Ancient Mesopotamia.
Across the globe in China, the invention of paper in 105 A.D. further geared society towards book production with their history of inscribing and curating printed texts onto bamboo slips consisting of pages sewn together to create a book template.
In Europe, the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg between 1440 and 1450 signalled the departure from the classical world to modernity. (Prior to the invention, most European texts were printed using xylography, a form of woodblock printing similar to the Chinese method used to print “The Diamond Sutra” in 868.)
The printing press ushered in the era of the renaissance with more than twenty million volumes of books were published in Western Europe and by 1500, approximately 150 to 200 million copies.
Initially Gutenberg sought to invent the printing press to make the Bible more accessible to the people who were not senior clergy – a radical move for a time where only clergyman had the access to ecclesiastical doctrine. Nonetheless, despite theological debate, the Bible has outsold other books including The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien that sold 150 million copies and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, which sold 120 million copies.
Approximately 5 billion copies of the Bible have been sold during the last period of 50 years according to the Guinness World Records.
Perhaps, could not have been achieved without the development of mass production by means of remotely accessible printing. Though, it was only in the 18th Century that the novel was developed and became a popular source for entertainment. Popular novels of this period were Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) – Richardson was both an English writer and printer.
The worlds of printing and writing soon overlapped, with the operation of the press soon became synonymous with the enterprise of printing, in which the legacy is seen today in the association of “the press” with the communication of ideas and discourse in the public sphere.
Today, there are many publishing houses publishing numerous of books every year and as we entered the age of technology, the book has yet again adapted its format to suit the environment of digital media with services such as Amazon Kindle and Audible innovating the way that books are consumed.