A Very Brief History of Books

Alberto Manguel has a chronology in some editions of his book, A History of Reading. These are some of the highlights – with a few recent updates.

  • C. 4000 BC – pictographs give way to cuneiform, preserved on clay tablets
  • C. 420 BC Socrates argues that literacy is a bad idea, since rather than examine life, we would simply be decoding symbols and living our lives second hand.
  • c. 230 – Library of Alexandria burns. Actually, little in known about this library or its burning, but it seems that a large number of scrolls and translations were gathered in Alexandria and at some point (or more than one point) they were destroyed. The universal library remains a potent idea.
  • c. 800 – Book of Kells illuminated manuscript is created by monks in Ireland or Scotland.

  • c. 1010 – the world’s first novel is written by Lady Murasaki – the Tale of Genji

  • In Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa, Arabic-language manuscripts collected by families, with thousands of them hidden from view during the French colonial period, preserved in the desert outpost for hundreds of years. Many are being digitized today, but are in fragile condition.
  • 1455 – Gutenberg invents the printing press (though the Chinese were there first with moveable type); for the first time identical versions of a text can be made multiple times.

    • 1536 – Tyndale translates the bible into English and, for this heresy, is strangled, then his body is burned at the stake.
    • 1559 – the Vatican publishes its first list of forbidden books. The final printing of the list was made in 1966, when the practice was discontinued.
    • 1740 – South Carolina passes a law against teaching slaves to read; other southern states follow suit. Slave narratives – memoirs written by slaves about their experiences – become a potent force in the abolitionist movement.
    • 1933 – in Germany Nazis hold book burnings; in the same year, the first mass market paperbacks are published, making mainstream books more affordable.
    • 1971- Project Gutenberg begins putting public domain books online in downloadable files. The first of these are hand-typed as text files by volunteers. The project continues, now using scanning technology.
    • 1995 – Amazon begins selling books online
    • 2003 – Amazon launches its “search inside” feature, searching the contents of hundreds of thousands of books.
    • 2004 – Google launches Google Book Search. When publishers fail to flock to their project, Google begins to scan the contents of major research libraries. Publishers sue.
    • 2007 – Amazon launches the kindle to much ballyhoo. Not everyone is impressed.
    • 2008 – Stanza for iPhone released and nearly half a million iPhone users download it (and in 2009, Amazon buys the company).
  • 2008 – Google comes to an agreement with publishers and sets the groundwork for becoming the world’s largest vendor of online book content.
  • 2010 – In January, Amazon delists one of the “big six” publishers in a snit over who controls e-book pricing; grudgingly admits defeat a few days later. E-book sales surge from a little over 3% of book sales in 2009 to nearly 9%; Amazon reports that the Kindle is their bestselling product ever; Borders and Barnes and Nobles struggle for survival; Google begins to sell e-books . . .
  • 2012 – the New York Times includes e-books on its best-seller lists. Among the top ten biggest sellers of the year are the three 50 Shades books and the full trilogy. Romance tops the list with 7 of 10 top sellers, after two decades dominated by thrillers.
  • 2013 – ?????
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