The origin of Books

As this is my first official blog post I thought I would delve into the origin of books and use this blog as an excuse to learn more about where they come from. My hope is to head into the publishing world soon, and where better to start than learning about what the whole of the publishing world revolves around? 

From my research I have gathered that the very first people to transcribe the written word onto move-able materials were an ancient group of people known as Sumerians. The group lived in Southern Mesopotamia around 3500 BC. They devised the ‘cuneiform’ alphabet, which was etched onto clay tablets and allowed to dry in the sun for as long as possible. Then in 2400 BC and originating in Egypt, the earliest form of Papyrus scrolls we know to date were written. This thick paper, named after the papyrus plant it was sourced from, was used for hundreds of years before the Greeks and Romans eventually adopted the technique. Obviously this is a very abbreviated version, but if you want to know more then there is a tonne of information on Google.

Next (and probably the most well known) comes parchment paper. Herodotus, a Greek man regarded as being the ‘Father of History’, describes the use of parchment as being common in his time. However, scrolls of parchment paper were not the most practical. Firstly, you would have had to use both hands to unwind carefully from the right, and to roll it back up to the left. Secondly, archaeologists have found evidence of scrolls being worn at the bottom from where it has spent time rubbing against clothing. The scrolls would have been too heavy to keep elevated for long periods of time. A modern day equivalent of this is seeing a worn out looking book on someone’s bookshelf, a clear indication the book has been read more than once.

I’m skipping over the invention of wax tablets next, because I do not find it that revolutionary. They are quite self explanatory, words were printed into tablets of wax. What comes next though in 105 AD is the Chinese eunuch. The process of this paper making involves making a mixture of fibres in water to form a suspension and then allowing this suspension to drain through a screen so that a mat of fibre remains. The very first book was printed in China in 868 AD. They used a block of wood that had characters carved in reverse relief. Ink was then placed on the block of wood to create a print in the paper. I think people then thought their words out more carefully than we do now, as there was less opportunity to just correct mistakes.

In 1439 AD -1490 AD the first move-able type is developed in Europe, by Mr. Johannes Gutenberg. This man’s greatest work is no other than the Gutenberg Bible, known as the first book to be printed using his method, and marked the beginning of the Gutenberg Revolution, the dawn of printing books. The year 1455 marks the beginning of the books sat on my bookshelf right now. Fun fact: according to a study in 2010 there are over 129 million books in existence. I’m not sure how many more have been printed since then, but just know that if you ever think you can’t find anything good to read, then just know that the options are endless.

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press by the end of the 15th century had spread to no less than 236 countries in the world, with more than 20 million books produced. From here on the printing world was in full swing. Something I did not know until researching the origin of books was that the element chlorine, which was discovered in 1744 AD, is used in the bleaching of paper and without this we would not have the nice clean white look we have now. And so with the appearance of book sleeves in 1832 AD, this marked the very first books that most resemble the books that we buy now.

Obviously I have blitzed through this and have left out a lot of details. For me though it is important to know at least a bit of the history of something in order to be able to fully understand it. The history of books follows with the invention of the ‘penny dreadful’ and then (a long period after) the progression of the e-book market in the 2000s. I know this little blog post has not even scratched the surface, but maybe I will explore this topic deeper in later posts.

Until next time,


One thought on “The origin of Books

  1. I enjoyed revisiting the history of publishing.
    Good luck with your new blog, I hope you enjoy it.
    And thanks for following mine, for which I am grateful.
    Best wishes, Pete.


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