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A Historical Look At The Book

by Jenny Curtis


From A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel.

ca. 4000 b.c.
With the inscription of signs representing 10 goats and sheep on a clay tablet the first reader comes into being.

ca. 2300 b.c.
The first recorded author, the high priestess princess Enheduanna, addresses for the first time a "dear reader" in her songs.

ca. 420 b.c.
Socrates argues against reading. For him, books are useless tools, since they cannot explain what they say but only repeat the same words over and over again.

213 b.c.
Chinese emperor Shih Huang-Ti decrees that history is to begin with his reign. All books published before his time must be condemned to the fire.

200 b.c.
Aristophanes of Byzantium invents punctuation. Before then, written words were strung together in one continuous line.

ca. 1010
At a time when "serious" reading in Japan is exclusively restricted to men, Lady Murasaki writes the world's first novel, "The Book of Genji," to provide reading material for the women of the Heian Court.

Gutenberg invents the printing press, offering readers more and cheaper books. For the first time, readers can be certain of possessing identical copies of the same text.

Humanist William Tyndale, believing that his fellow Englishmen should be allowed to read the bible in their own language, translates the New Testament and most of the old into English for the first time. For his efforts, he is strangled and then burned at the stake.

South Carolina passes a law prohibiting the teaching of slaves to read, and several other states follow suit. A slave caught learning to read would be flogged; after a third offense, the first joint of the forefinger would be cut off.

According to UNESCO, 28 percent of the world's population cannot read.


1. [Falconer Madan, Books in Manuscript]

2. [Isaac Disraeli, Curiosities of Literature]

3. [John Power, A Handy-Book about Books]

4. [Falconer Madan, Books in Manuscript]

5. [William Blades, Books in Chains]

6. [William S. Walsh, A Handy Book of Literary Curiosities]

7. [William Keddie, Anecdotes Literary and Scientific]

Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity.
                                         - Herman Hesse

It is hard to imagine a world without reading and writing, without books. Alphonse de Lamartine said in 1858, "Letters are symbols which turn matter into spirit." Books give these letters a place to be written and read, and thus a means of entering into humanity as friends, as conversation, as references to days gone by and predictions about the future. The book is a constant companion, silently accepting any number of interpretations and emotions depending on the reader. Books serve as lifelong teachers; they keep us company in bed when sleep is slow in coming, on long airplane rides, and wherever else we care to carry them.

The oldest writing in the world is estimated to date back to about 4000 B.C. The most ancient of known texts is an inscription on a monument in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The written symbols accompany a carved drawing of a priest and a woman sitting across from each other at a table full of offerings. The most remarkable part of this piece is the use of the letters "N," "S," and "D" evidence that Egyptian hieroglyphics, are direct ancestors of our own alphabet. [1]

The earliest writing was engraved onto bricks, oyster shells, tiles, ivory, stone tables, tree bark, and leaves instead of paper. Words were etched into brass and bronze; thorns were used to scratch letters onto leather. Ancient peoples hung what were called "sheep chronicles," consisting of engravings onto the shoulder bones of sheep. Iron carving instruments and eventually reeds were used as pens. As time went on, painting with ink was discovered, and ink was used on anything from animal skins to plants and linens. In fact, the Illiad and the Odyssey were both written on serpent skins at one time!

Later, in China, paper was made of silk, while papyrus and then parchment were used in Egypt. The origin of the Latin word for book, liber, comes from the Romans who used the thin peel found between bark and wood (the liber) before the times of parchment. Our English word stems from the Danish word for book, bog, meaning birch tree, since the early people of Denmark wrote on birch bark. [2]

Square-shaped books are believed to have emerged no earlier than the fourth century in Rome, to emulate the tablets then used as private memoranda. These tablets began as plain waxed plates of metal, and evolved into intricately decorated ivory-covered leaves of vellum. Individuals began presenting them to one another as personal gifts, with poems written inside, and the idea of the gift book was born. [3]

During medieval times scribes produced manuscripts and in turn, manuscripts created the role of the scribe. For hours on end the daily task was carried out: the separate leaves were ruled, words were transcribed with pen and ink, the work was checked word for word by the "corrector," and titles and chapters were inserted by the "rubricator." Lastly, the binder would sew the pages together inside a cover. [4]

Due to the lengthy process of producing manuscripts before the invention of the printing press, books were commonly in...chains! College authorities lent single volumes to students for one year, but in order to ensure the books' return, the volumes were chained to desks and shelves. When giving a book to a medieval library people first bought a chain, sometimes even a clasp (depending on the value of the book), and then found a blacksmith to "chain" their book. [5]

The first "books" to be given to schoolboys (no girls were allowed in school), were known as horn books. Horn books were thin oak boards, about 9-by-5 inches, with a handle at one end much like a paddle. On them were printed numbers, the alphabet, and sometimes the Lord's Prayer. Horn books varied in their degree of workmanship and quality.

Horn book

They became a means of displaying status, and eventually were made of ivory, metals, leather, cardboard, and even gingerbread! Some were elaborately decorated and engraved while others remained simple. Horn books enabled children to learn letters and numbers for many centuries, even after the invention of the printing press. [6]

The city of Mainz, Germany produced the first printed book in 1456. Although the book was printed by Peter Schoeffer and Johann Faust, it's known as the Gutenberg Bible (after Johann Gutenberg) due to Gutenburg's business relationship with Faust and his earlier failed experimentation with the printing press. The Gutenberg Bible is the most expensive book in the world; in June of 1978 the University of Texas bought a copy of it for $2,400,000.

In 1474, after learning the art of printing in Germany, William Caxton returned to England where he printed Game and Playe of the Chesse, the first production of the British press. In 1640, Stephen Daye of Cambridge, MA, was responsible for the first book printed in North America, a religious text referred to as the Bay Psalm Book. [7]

The second part of the history of the world and the arts begins with the invention of printing.
                                                                - Goethe

It is almost impossible for us to imagine what living in "the first part" of history before the invention of printing would have been like. Books have traveled through history from a time when writing was painstakingly carved on sheep bones and ivory, to today an era of convenience with gigantic libraries, mass printing, on-line publications, and coffeeshop/bookstores on every corner. Reading has not only crossed borders and cultures, but also allows us a respite from the ongoing pace of time. Each book remains its own world, outside of and larger than history.

After all, humankind "builds no structure which outlives a book." [Eugene Fitch Ware]

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