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The History of the Book, Part Two

By Kristin Masters. Jan 21, 2013. 3:27 AM.

Topics: Book Collecting, Book History

Last week we traced the history of the book up through the Middle Ages, exploring the evolution of books from stone tablets to codices. This week we'll finish our historical journey with a look at some of the key developments in the book's history.

During the second through fourth centuries BCE, there was a transition from scrolls to books as collections of sheets attached at the back. This development allowed readers to directly access specific points in the text much more easily. Around this time, tables of contents and indices came into use. Meanwhile, over time it got cheaper to produce paper, making it easier to produce books. By the beginning of the Middle Ages, books had become an integral part of many people's lives.

Books as Didactic Tools

Books have long held an important place in religious study; indeed monasteries played a critical role in the development of libraries. Medieval monks would painstakingly hand copy books, preserving them not only for cultural reasons, but also to give them religious insight. In some cases, if a book was considered too dangerous, the manuscript would be scraped, thus destroying the work. In other cases, the manuscripts were delicately decorated with drawings and other details; the illuminated manuscript emerged as an art form.


But outside the cloistered life of the monastery, Europe was experiencing a sort of revival. Cities were growing--and with them the universities and professional communities that have always fed our need for books. Thus the demand for reference manuscripts grew steadily. Commerce also developed concurrently, driving the demand for books on both generalized and specialized topics. Commercial scriptoria (book copying centers) popped up, and soon bookselling emerged as a more widespread profession.

The Industrial Era of Books

The next major development in the history of the book came around 1440, when Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. This led to an extraordinary shift in the book market. Before, books were expensive and time consuming to produce; it did not make sense to produce a book unless someone requested it an you knew you had a buyer. But the printing press meant that books could be produced on a much larger scale, for a much broader audience. For the first time, books were made before buyers were secured.

Printing Press

Over the next 100 years, Gutenberg's invention was introduced throughout Europe. The device took longer to reach other parts of the world. It became more feasible to produce not only instructional works, but also pieces of literature; therefore poetry and novels became more common and more stylized writing forms. Books were no longer relegated to members of the upper class; they were now accessible to people of virtually every social class.

Religion Drives Innovation

As Europe entered an age of exploration, the printing press and books were brought to different corners of the globe. Missionaries often accompanied the explorers, and their task soon necessitated access to inexpensive copies of the Bible. Then in 1804, the British and Foreign Bible Society was founded, followed by the American Bible Society in 1816. These organizations' goal was to make the Bible and other religious texts widely available to people throughout the world.


Clearly that mission demanded extremely large and inexpensive printing runs. From that need arose multiple innovations. Just before 1820, steam printing presses were invented. Shortly thereafter steam paper mills further contributed to reducing the cost of book manufacture. These two inventions made it possible to add other features to the text, such as titles, subtitles and headings, with greater ease. They also drastically reduced the expense of producing books, making them arguably the most important inventions in the history of the book since the printing press.

Now the book has entered a new era, thanks to the internet. Though many experts once predicted that the physical book would soon become obsolete, we've actually seen the opposite trend; people have embraced the physical book as an art form and vital part of our culture. We're in an interesting position, where so many are focused on predicting the future of the book. We want you to weigh in--what will the state of the book be in ten years? One hundred years? Leave your perspective in the comments below.

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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