A book is often considered a medium for recording information. This can be in the form of writing or images on pages; the book is composed of many pages, which can be made from papyrus, parchment, vellum, or paper and bound together and protected by a cover. Generally, a book is marked by a certain length of the written message it contains and is intended for public circulation. A book offers a portable and permanent way to distribute information to individuals, and in so doing, has a chance to transcend time and space to transmit that knowledge.
Books have been a part of preserving and disseminating knowledge of every literate society in history. In saying that, the form, content, and provisions for making and distributing books have varied during their history, with only the variety of content matching the variety of form.
The word "book" comes from the Old English word boc, which means "writing or written document" and is believed to refer to the Proto-Germanic *bōk(ō)-, from *bokiz "beech." This is believed to refer to the notion of early Germanic writings on beechwood tablets, but could be for the tree itself and the beech tree bark's resemblance to paper. This is similar to the French livre, from the Latin librum, which refers to the "inner bark of trees."
The original Old English word referred to any written document, with the sense gradually narrowing by the early Middle English to mean "a written work covering many pages fastened together and bound" and also any literary composition in any form. This narrowed explanation later included any bound pages, whether written on or not, and extended to magazines in the nineteenth century and a telephone directory in the twentieth century.
Books tend to be largely classified as either fiction or nonfiction. Within these types of books, there are dozens of more specific types or genres.
Nonfiction books are any books that contain factual information or are intended to be factual in their content. This can include books such as biographies or history books. Other examples of nonfiction books can include nonfiction journals, such as The Diary of Anne Frank, dictionaries, encyclopedia, travel books, and "how to" books.
Fiction books contain stories that are considered largely or completely made up. Although a fiction book may have elements of truth, such as true moments in history or true facts, the focus of a fiction book is not to tell a truth or a factual narrative like with nonfiction books. Rather, the intention is to tell a story that can exist in a true environment and can even include true protagonists, but has some elements that are exaggerated, elaborated, or fabricated. Classic examples of fiction include Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Subfields of fiction and nonfiction books
Action and adventure
Art and architecture
Crafts and hobbies
The definition of the book has been challenged through the twenty-first century and the age of e-readers. These devices have an implicit argument in the act of digitizing a book and removing the bound text from the shelf to suggest it is as good as digital bits. This ignores the book as an object, rather than just the words and information inside them. These objects are manufactured and owned, and often marked by pencils, time, coffee cups, and oils from a reader's skin, giving the object a story of its own. The story of that object continues in the annotations or notes that tell a story of the previous readers' reading and understanding of the book.
The object of the book tells a second story, which can be rooted in the history of reading in the nineteenth century. This regards the pages, which have been prized at any point in history for scrap paper capable of being used to make a list as it has been for any literary value. Through most of history, and especially at the beginning of the nineteenth century, paper was expensive, with the process of turning wood pulp into clean sheets not yet developed. However, through the nineteenth century, paper got cheaper and books got cheaper, and the objects gained popular and literary value.
The book as an object, with its production, smell, texture, ease of reading, and the pride people take in a well-stocked bookshelf, makes them more than vessels for content, but objects with appeal. The form of the book, the size and shape, paper stock, printing, cover type, and binding create an appeal and an anticipation for a reader, with a certain ceremony around the purchasing, borrowing, or reception of a book.
The value of the physical book is challenged by the increase in digitization of books, with the concept of a book shifting from a physical object to a pattern of organization with the purpose to tell a story or organize information for giving information a narrative. This is especially true with books such as encyclopedia, dictionaries, thesauri, travel books, and cookbooks (many of the non-narrative nonfiction books) being replicated with great success online. This has reduced the usefulness and attractiveness of the printed version of these books. However, readers continue to prefer and value the book as an object, as the physical book can transcend time and have tangible value, which has not been done by digitized information in any meaningful way.
Books have been a part of human history and a tool for knowledge-gathering and societies since the ancient times. They have been used to tell histories, stories, and share necessary information, with some of the oldest record-keeping focused on taxes. Although the material and the form of books have changed over time, some of the oldest known "book-like" objects date back to the fourth millennium BCE.
The earliest known writing that has survived comes from Mesopotamia, dating back to as far as the seventh century BCE. These were the first objects that served as ways of storing information and were clay tablets on which they made markings using a triangle-ended instrument called the calamus, which was the stem of a reed plant sharpened to a point. The calamus etched wedge-like writing, cuneiform, into wet clay. The clay was then dried through fire. More than 20,000 such tablets were found at Nineveh, modern Iraq, and were believed to have been part of the library and archive of the kings of Assyria. Tablets would remain a common writing tool until the nineteenth century (though some argue they are back), as they moved from clay tablets to wax tablets, which offered reusable writing faces, to chalk-board tablets.
Following Mesopotamia, and developing alongside the societies of the fertile valley, the Egyptians developed a different method of writing, with some historians believing this script was developed around 3000 BCE. Egyptians were found to have written on many different surfaces, including metal, leather, clay, stone, and bone. Most prominent was the practice of using reed pens to write on papyrus scrolls. Papyrus was an ideal material for Egypt at the time, as it was made using reeds that grew plentifully in the Nile Valley. Individual scrolls were found as long as 113 feet and often 7 to 10 inches wide.
As writing and literacy grew across the Mediterranean, Egypt grew and maintained a monopoly over the papyrus trade. Many of the scrolls developed from papyrus were housed in large libraries, which acted both as repositories of knowledge and displays of political power. However, as with most monopolies, Egypt's peers began to grow tired. This, in part, led to the development of another material, parchment, which was made from treated animal skins that were scraped into a thin, flexible, and even surface.
Parchment had several advantages over papyrus: it was more durable, both sides could be written on, and its trade wasn't monopolized by the Egyptians. The spread of parchment coincided with the development of one of the earliest analogues of the book. This came between the second and fourth centuries, as Romans began sewing folded sheets of papyrus or parchment together and binding those sheets between wooden covers. Called a codex, the object had a similar structure to modern books. At the time, the codex provided an easier-to-handle, more portable, and less expensive alternative to scrolls.
The scroll was a two-handed reading activity, often being laid out for a reader to scan through to find necessary information. Whereas the codex allowed a reader to flip between pages to find information, and it could be propped open in front of a reader, allowing the individual to take notes while reading. But scrolls continued to be in use for thousands of years. While the codex became the preferred form for early Christian texts, and the spread of Christianity has been given credit for the eventual dominance of the form of the codex.
Following the fall of the western Roman Empire, during the fifth century CE, and the dominance of "barbarian" cultures through the European continent, the existence of books in a large portion of the Christian world was considered to have been threatened. The church of the time withstood the perceived assaults, providing refuge for books and offering a large readership as monks were generally literate and considered to have enjoyed reading books. The monasteries set up libraries to store books, and during this time, historian and grammarian Cassiodorus, who served the Ostrogothic kings, retired from public life around 540 CE and found a monastery to establish a scriptorium in Vivarium.
Here, he supervised the copying of books, wrote a guide to learning, composed works that presented writers as models, discussed rules for editing, and suggested procedures for establishing a scriptorium and a library. Following this and other examples, monastic houses throughout Europe and the Middle Ages had libraries and scriptoria where monks copied books to add to their collections. Frequently these scriptoriums were spare, often large, single rooms that were often only used during daylight hours, without heat or artificial light for fear of fire. This was also the period when the illuminated manuscripts were developed.
A book would be handed to an illuminator who would supply any needed illustrations or decorative devices before the book was bound. The process was slow, with a monastic library with as many as 600 volumes considered large, while the ancient libraries were believed to have housed as many as 10,000 volumes. Illuminating a manuscript would include painted embellishments, illustrations, decorative capital letters, and ornate borders. The processes of scholarship and copying books were considered by the monks of the Middle Ages to be a way to get closer to God, even if the works that were read and copied were secular works. Books during this period in Europe were so highly valued that some scribes placed "book curses" at the front of manuscripts to curse any who stole or defaced a copy.
The invention of paper was another important step in the historical development of the book, and for all human civilizations, as it offered a cheaper, more easily manufactured material to print on, compared to papyrus or parchment. The invention of paper came in China, with popular Chinese history pointing to the invention of paper in 105 CE, under the Han Dynasty emperor Ho-Ti, when a government official named Ts'ai Lun (Cai Lun) began making paper by mixing chopped mulberry bark and hemp rags with water; this was then laid out to dry in the sun, with the water pressed out.
However, despite this narrative, there is archaeological evidence of primitive paper types from the second century BCE in China, largely using hemp. It is considered that the invention of this early form of paper was accidental, with it being the result of clothes being left too long after washing and forming a residue that could be pressed into a new useful material. But following Ts'ai Lun's innovation, further experiments into the production of paper were undertaken, using the fibers of different plants, grasses, vegetable matter, hemp, and tree bark to find the cheapest mix of materials to produce quality paper.
One such experimentation saw the use of rattan be replaced with bamboo fibers as the most common material, with the change dating to the eighth century CE. One reason for this was the rattan plant was slow growing and had been wiped out in certain regions of China, while bamboo grew much faster than both rattan and hemp. The Chinese attempted to keep the secret of paper-making, similar to silk, but the secret was eventually leaked when a group of paper-makers were taken prisoner by Arabs following the Battle of Talas. This turned Baghdad into a major producer of paper and helped paper spread to Medieval Europe.
This occurred as Italians were able to bring paper-making technology from Egypt into Italy, around 1250 CE, and from there make and sell paper across Europe. The paper industry in Egypt and parts of Europe would be destroyed in the Black Death plague, which saw, around 1338 CE, French monks begin to make their own paper, using water wheels to power paper mills, further cheapening the paper production process. The production of paper continued to spread across Europe, with the early paper production beginning in Germany around 1411, in where they produced paper from linen rags.
Around the time paper production was spreading across Europe, there is believed to have been another independent invention of paper. This occurred in the Aztec, around modern Mexico, where a similar paper product was made out of agave plant fibers. The paper production in the Aztec saw the development of books as well.
The next important development in the history of the book to come from China, from the Tang (618-906 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties, respectively, was the invention of woodblock printing, and eventually of moveable type. Woodblock printing came, in part, from the development of and use of seals, which were used to make impressions of clay and silk, and the practice of taking rubbings from inscribed texts from bronze and stone reliefs. In woodblock printing, a carved wooden block would carve out a negative image of the text, which would be inked. While the ink was wet, a piece of paper was laid over it. The printer would brush the back of the paper to cause the ink to imprint. This allowed for printing on only one side of a page.
The invention of woodblock printing saw Buddhists printing all of their scriptures, an effort that required an approximate 130,000 woodblocks and took around twelve years to complete. As well, different texts spread around the nearby world, as evidenced by a Buddhist scroll that was discovered in Korea, likely printed in China around 704 and 751 CE. More of a technology development, as seen with a Japanese text, is dated to around 764-770 CE, and commissioned by Empress Shotoku. One of the more famous printed documents, it is considered one of the oldest books, the Diamond Sutra. It is believed to have been printed in 868 and consists of seven sheets of paper forming a scroll of 16 inches long and 12 inches wide.
The spread of woodblock printing stimulated the paper industry, with different types of papers for different purposes. The blocks were commonly manufactured from date or pear trees. Despite the importance of woodblock printing to the spread of information and commercial transactions in China, it was time consuming. By 1041 and 1048 CE, Bi Sheng, a common man and experienced woodblock printer, is said to have developed moveable-type printing.
The development was written about by Song dynasty scientist Shen Kuo, where he described Bi Sheng making one clay type for each linguistic character, with a layer of resin, wax, and paper ash mix placed on the bottom of an open iron box to hold the type characters facing up. The wax was heated and a board was pressed to ensure the typeface was level. These clay typefaces were inked and then printed in a fashion similar to woodblock printing, except the clay types could be disassembled and reused. The moveable-type printing process substantially reduced the printing time from several days to a matter of hours. However, the thousands of ideograms in written Chinese still made the process not as efficient as it would prove to be in other language systems.
The next major development in moveable type came in the development of metal moveable type. This came around 1350, during the Goryeo Dynasty, when Korean ruler Tsai-Tung ordered Korean engravers to develop type from bronze—an improvement over clay due to its durability. The oldest known book to be printed using the technology was Jikji, which was an anthology of Buddhist teachings printed around 1377.
Johannes Gutenberg, in the fifteenth century, was a German craftsman and inventor who originated a method of printing with moveable type. This would prove to be a significant improvement over the manual printing used in China and Korea previously. A political exile from Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg is believed to have begun experimenting with different types of printing in Strasbourg, France. Here, the earliest mention of mechanized printing press in Europe appears in a lawsuit from 1439, which revealed the construction of Gutenberg's press, which owed its principles to the medieval paper press, which was, in turn, modeled off of the wine-and-olive press.
The Gutenberg press used a long handle, which turned a heavy wooden screw that exerted downward pressure against the paper, which was laid over the type mounted on a wooden platen. The press was able to produce 250 sheets per hour, printed on one side. The essential principles of the printing press would continue to be used for 300 years. Although moveable type had previously been developed, some believe Gutenberg was influenced by either examples or rumors of the technology spread from the Silk Road. Gutenberg designed a moveable type made from molten lead, in a replica casting process, in which letters were created in reverse in brass, and replicas made from these. This made the type available in large quantities. And the letters were fashioned to fit together uniformly and to create level lines of letters and consistent columns.
Equally important was the ink developed by Gutenberg. Rather than using inks of the time, he developed an oil-based ink, which was made sufficiently thick to adhere to the metal type and transfer to vellum or paper in the new press. The invention of the printing press further reduced the time to print when compared to other moveable type printing methods, let alone when compared to popular contemporary European printing techniques, such as woodblock-printing, letter-stamping, or hand-copying books. The printing press has since been considered a history-changing invention, capable of making books more accessible and ushering in an information revolution.
The ability to easily and cheaply print books led to concerns that a greater distribution of ideas would threaten the power structures of Europe. This led to Pope Alexander VI, in 1501, to promise excommunication to anyone who printed manuscripts without the approval of the church. Books from John Calvin and Martin Luther, around twenty years later, proved Pope Alexander VI's fears. Gutenberg's printing press is believed to have been key to the cultural revolutions in Europe, including the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution, each which made use of recorded ideas cheaply printed and widely spread and contributed to the growth of literacy, education, and availability of information for ordinary people.
Following the development of the printing press and the spread of printing across Europe, there were further developments that led to the form of the book as it is known. One of the earliest of these was the establishment of the Aldine Press in Venice in 1494. Established by Aldo Manuzio, or Aldus Manutius in Latin, the Aldine Press gained a reputation as one of the finest printers of the period, printing high quality and affordable editions of 127 works, primarily Latin and Greek classics, and dictionaries to help scholars understand and interpret the texts. To do so, Aldine Press employed scholars, such as Erasmus, who would have their works printed by Aldine Press when they moved to contemporary printing in modern languages.
These texts were printed and bound in vellum, which allowed them to make the texts more affordable, and they were printed in a small "pocketbook" size.. Further, the Aldine Press has been credited with the development of italic font, which was used to squeeze more words on a page, and the widespread use of the semicolon.
Although the German-Swedish chemist is properly best remembered for the discoveries of oxygen, chlorine, manganese, and other discoveries in chemistry and pharmacy, Carl Wilhelm Scheele played an important, if minor, role in the development of modern books. His discovery of chlorine, which when applied to the pages of a book would bleach the sheets of paper, created the white paper that allowed the printed text to stand out in greater contrast.
Although it may be a minor development, prior to the 1820s, books were issued as unbound sheets or with disposable board covers. Customers would buy the book and often commissioned bindings for themselves, often matching other titles in their library. Instead of a cover, some publishers would protect the exterior with a blank page, sometimes called a bastard title.
The earliest version of the dust jacket was a slipcase, or sheath, first seen in the eighteenth century. These were small boxes open on one or both ends. It is likely the sheaths that gave rise to the idea of a detachable publisher's cover, especially as the sheath's function was to attract and protect the book. By the 1820s, publishers began encasing annuals and gift books in a sort of wrapping paper, printed with enough text to identify the volume. The dust jacket was included for a gift book, bound in silk, entitled Friendship's Offering in 1829, and again for The Keepsake in 1833. These were still disposable covers. The first modern-style dust jacket was introduced in the 1830s, featuring flaps and the beginnings of decorative features, such as pictures, to draw a potential reader's eyes.
The dust jacket would not rise to prominence until the 1920s, when a change in attitude among publishers occurred, and they began emphasizing the dust jacket instead of the bindings. Around this time, the attitude of book purchasers saw the popularity of hardbound books, which included dust jackets, with people preferring to buy these expensive books over a paperback counterpart.
The penny dreadful emerged in the 1830s to cater to the increasingly literate working class. It was made possible by technological advancements in printing and distribution. The height of the popularity of the penny dreadful (though it could be argued that they continue to circulate, if under a different name) came in the 1860s and 1870s when the small books papered newsstands.
Historians estimate there may have been as many as one hundred publishers in the business, paying authors by the line to write tales. The novels themselves would cost a penny, to make them as attractive and affordable as possible. Many of these books dealt with grim, gothic tales, folklore and ballads, and mystery stories, often being escapist in nature. The most popular of the stories could sell around 30,000 copies a week. When they began to target younger readers, they began to be swept up in a moral panic of the era, with critics of the time declaring the penny dreadful as the literature of "rascaldom," responsible for peopling Britain's prisons and penal colonies.
This led, by the 1870s, to raids from the police on the offices of publishers of penny dreadfuls, with newsagents and booksellers soon being persecuted for stocking under the Obscene Publications Act. According to moralists of the time, these books would lead young errand boys, sailors, and textile workers to be dissatisfied with their own lives and make them yearn for wealth and adventure beyond their station, further leading to a glamorization of the criminal life.
During the early twentieth century, with the rise in popularity of hardback books, the Boni brothers founded the Modern Library, which would evolve into Random House. The brothers observed some mistakes that printers made and decided to develop a mail order book club with a yearly subscription, where they sent subscribers high quality literature in paperback form.
Similarly, in 1935, brothers Allen, Richard, and John Lane founded Penguin Books in London. The brothers' immediate goal was to publish the best of modern literature on a massive scale and at a low price. The books were sold for a sixpence each and were received with enthusiasm from the reading public, selling 150,000 copies within four days, and sales reaching 1 million in four months. In 1946, little more than ten years after the launch, the firm would sell its hundred millionth book.
Random House and Penguin were part of the development of the modern publishing industry. Arguably, this began in the 1500s in Europe and other countries, when publishing houses began buying the copyrights to an author's work, which they then printed, distributed, and sold, returning royalties or other payments to the author depending on the agreement. Many copyright laws were developed in the 1800s, as the reduction in the cost of printing and distributing books led to many best-selling books to be copied and sold without due copyright. This led to many of the copyright laws that underlie current laws and policies and work to protect authors and publishers from piracy and plagiarism.
With the development of new printing technologies, such as digital printing, the ability to self-publish for relatively small amounts of money has emerged as an efficient publishing model in the twenty-first century. The concept is not new—authors such as Benjamin Franklin, William Blake, and Jane Austen turned to self-publishing, or vanity publishing as it was known, to publish their works when a publisher would not. But the development has allowed for smaller print runs at similar, if not lower, costs when compared to traditional publishers. Examples of modern self-published titles that would prove popular include Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James and Martian by Andy Weir. Both would eventually be picked up by traditional publishers and distributors.
The digitization of books refers to the conversion of physical books into digital formats. It began in 1971, with the founding of Project Gutenberg, whose project was to develop a digital library to collect the full texts of books or individual stories in the public domain. This project offers users a chance to read the books in HTML, PDF, EPUB, MOBI, and Plucker. This was an early, positive step in the digitization of books. Digitalization, as noted with Project Gutenberg, is generally done to enhance a book's reach by reproducing and distributing it in various digital spaces. It also allows a book to be formatted, searched, and processed by third-party applications.
Book digitization can allow educational institutions and libraries to enhance their collections and allow teachers to offer different learning opportunities to students. This proved especially important during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students were unable to enter a library to get access to physical copies of a book.
Digitization has also been impactful in the publishing industry, both as traditional publishers have begun releasing books formatted for e-readers, and in the self-publishing industry, as individuals have a chance to reach a greater audience, and with less effort than they would have publishing physical copies of a book. As well, for those self-publishing authors, digital publishing offers them a chance to put a book out without paying for the costs of physical copies.
A brief history of the publishing industry
July 17, 2020
History of the Book - Chapter 10. Modern Publishing Transformations: Libraries, globalization, corporatization, and artists' publications
May 7, 2018
What Exactly Do We Mean By a Book?
October 1, 2020
What Is a Book? - Public Books
January 4, 2022