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A Brief History of Books

A row of books
A close-up of a row of book pages.
Image source: Syd Wachs/Unsplash

In the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, editor Leslie Howsam writes: "The history of the book is a way of thinking about how people have given material form to knowledge and stories."

This suggests that our conception of books must go beyond the printed volumes on bookstore or library shelves. After all, printed texts date back at least 5,000 years, whereas the mass printing books began in the middle of the last millennium, and books only acquired their more modern form and reach in the last couple of centuries.

Book History Timeline

Even a brief summary of the history of the book, shows it to be an object whose definition, form, and method of production is constantly changing and evolving, even as its fundamental purpose goes through similar shifts and revolutions and shifts.

When asked to define "book" we should ask: Which one?

Mesopotamia - 3500-3000 BCE

Illustration of a stone table with ancient writing and a chisel.

Settlers in Mesopotamia make clay tablets, which they mark with a triangle-shaped instrument called a calamus made from the stem of a sharpened reed. These wedge-like imprints, created by the calamus in moist clay, are known as cuneiform.

Egypt - Early 3000 BCE

 Illustration of papyrus with hieroglyphics and bamboo in the background.

Papyrus is developed by extracting marrow from papyrus reed stems was humidified, pressed, dried, glued, and cut into sheets. Strips of the papyrus plant were rolled into scrolls that opened horizontally, with the text on one side and divided into columns.

Greece - 500 to 200 BCE

Illustration of a woooden frame with a piece a stretched vellum.

Sheep and goat skins are used to make parchment, a far more durable alternative to papyrus. Unlike leather, parchment is limed, not tanned, making it sensitive to humidity and easier to spoil when wet.

China - 100 BCE

Illustration of bamboo reeds and solk strands.

Experimentation with materials like the bark of the mulberry plant, hemp, old rags, and fish nets leads to the development of paper. The first recognizable books are made from rolls of dried bamboo split thinly and bound together with silk, hemp, or leather. Wood block printing offers the first means of reproducing books.

Rome - 100 BCE

Illustration of a handbound book.

The Romans begin binding vellum, which is made of animal skin, between wooden covers, which open like today's books. Known as codex, these books have tables of contents and indexes and are much smaller and easier to carry around than scrolls.

Handwritten Manuscripts - 600 to 800 CE

Illustration of an open book with illustrated pages.

Manuscripts are mostly handwritten on parchment. Books start to feature illustrations and are sometimes decorated with gold and silver.

Block Printing - 800 CE

Illustration of carving tools used in creating block printing plates

In China, reusable molds of individual characters or letters are used to form words on a frame that is then inked and pressed against paper-like material to create pages of text.

Moveable Type - 1000 to 1400

Illustration of carved wodden blocks with chinese characters.

The first movable type, made of wood, is developed in China. In 1200 CE, Korea builds on this with metal movable type. The first book printed with metal movable type appears in 1377.

The Printing Press – 1400s

Illustration of the Gutenberg press with printed, open books on the ground

In 1439, the mass production of books is made possible by Johannes Gutenberg's printing press, with the first mass-produced book, The Gutenberg Bible, appearing in 1455.

Paperbacks - 1832 to 1860

Illustration of a stack of penny dreadfuls, the top book is Sweeney Todd for 1 cent.

The availability of cheap printing and education pave the way for the first mass-printed paperbacks. In the UK, 'penny dreadfuls', 'penny bloods', or 'penny numbers', so-called because each cost one penny (or "dime novels" in America), are aimed at youth and working-class adults.

Audiobooks – 1932

Illustration of a Victrola record player

The American Foundation for the Blind creates the first recordings of books on vinyl records. In 1955, the Listening Library becomes a distributor of recorded books. Later, the advent of cassette tapes (1960s) and CDs (1980s) help make audiobooks more available. In 1994, Audible makes possible the downloading of books onto desktop computers.

Computers - 1970s

Illustration depicting various models of early computers.

With the invention of the personal computer, design, type, and layout become much easier, as does the process of book editing.

Internet and HTML – 1989

Illustration of a computer, keyboard and mouse with an image of earth on the screen depicting the world wide web.

The development of the World Wide Web (WWW) makes it possible to publish information widely.

Online Sales – 1995

Illustration of an open book with an Amazon logo. Text reads 2.5 million titles sold, Welcome to the World's Biggest Bookstore.

The first online bookseller, Amazon, offers a wide range of books at discounted prices, changing how books are purchased.

Google – 1996

Illustration of various Google browser screens

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, supported by the Digital Library Technology Project, aim to create digital libraries where collections of books will be available digitally to everyone.

E-books – 1970 to 2000

The first e-books, most of them in the public domain, were produced in the 1970s by The Gutenberg Project, the oldest digital library. In 2000, Riding the Bullet by Stephen King becomes the first mass-market e-book.

Kindle – 2006

Illustration of a Kindle e-reader.

Amazon releases the first e-reader for electronic books, the Kindle, which sells out in six hours.

2014 to present

Illustration of a person using a mobile phone.

People can download, store, and read thousands of books on smart phones, tablets, and a variety of e-readers. Advances in technology allow for easy self-publishing and print on demand is useful for books with a limited audience