“Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.”
— Arnold Lobel
Lately, I’ve been reading For the Love of Books by Graham Tarrant, and it occurred to me that this was an excellent subject for a Valentine’s Day post. Much of what follows I gleaned from that book.
A brief history of tomes. Books have been around for thousands of years, of course, but they weren’t for everybody. Some of the first ones were the real hardbacks – clay tablets that were inscribed and then dried in the sun. Durable, but not terribly convenient.
Next came the scrolls written on papyrus. The Egyptians and Greeks liked this medium. But leave it to the Romans to come up with something useful: the codex written on individual pages of parchment or vellum and attached along one edge so that pages could be turned.
In the Middle Ages, books were still confined to the elite classes of priests, scribes, and nobility. Monasteries housed buildings or rooms called scriptoria where monks laboriously hand-copied texts. Often the books in the scriptorium were chained to the shelves so they couldn’t be stolen. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is set in such a location.
The printing press. Then came Johannes Gutenberg and everything changed. His invention of the printing press along with his process for mass-producing movable metal type, provided an economical means for the mass production of printed books for the first time. Many scholars consider Gutenberg’s printing press to be the single most significant invention of the second millennium CE. The Age of Information had begun.
Because of Gutenberg’s invention, books were not only produced in great quantities, they began to be printed in the vernacular languages rather than just Latin. Literacy spread. Knowledge and ideas became available to the common man and woman through books. Some of the works produced in this early era were the King James Bible (1611), First Folio (1623), a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, and Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) in which the scientist explained his laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation.
By the eighteenth century, demand for books was so widespread that subscription libraries sprang up in Europe, and soon after public libraries came into being. Books were now available for all.
The novel. The novel adventure began with Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes which was published in 1605. It’s considered to be the first great modern novel.
As we fly through the next centuries, we find Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1837), and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Closer to the TKZ home front, the first modern detective story was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue short story (1841). However, Wilkie Collins lays claim to the first mystery novel, The Woman in White (1859), and the first detective novel, The Moonstone (1868).
It seemed that people couldn’t get enough of books. In 1935, Penguin Books became the first mass-market paperback endeavor. One of its first ten published works was The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.
Soon paperbacks became so popular and inexpensive they could be found in drug stores and newspaper stands in addition to libraries and book stores. Detective stories and crime novels were especially popular and made authors like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Erle Stanley Gardner household names.
Today our books come in hardback, paperback, digital print, or audio, and the publishing industry continues to grow.
So that tells a little of what happened over the last few millennia, but the question remains: Why do we love books so much? Is it the desire to acquire knowledge or increase understanding of times and places we can’t experience ourselves? Perhaps it’s just to be entertained. Personally, I believe the best books are those that make us think and feel, that make us go beyond ourselves to empathize.
Consider this small group of novels that all deal with young women growing up in vastly different circumstances:
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen shares her humorous tale of Elizabeth Bennet growing up in manners-conscious England during the early 19th century.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee tells the riveting story of young Scout Finch learning hard lessons about life as she comes of age in a small town in Alabama during the Great Depression.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith captures the joys and heartbreaks of Francie Nolan growing up in difficult circumstances in early 20th-century Brooklyn.
West with the Night – Beryl Markham captivates the reader with this memoir of her adventurous life in the wilds of Kenya during the first half of the 20th century.
Although these four books differ in times and places, they each resonate with themes of family, community, adversity, and determination. The circumstances and personalities of the main characters may be different in each book, but the stories enable us to see ourselves in them. Such books influence who we are and how we interact with the world around us. No wonder we love them so.
How many books are there? As of Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 8:26 AM, the Google Books Project counted 129,864,880 unique books. According to a November 2021 article on Market Research Telecast, that figure had grown to about 170,000,000 by 2019.
I don’t know how many books there are today, but I’m honored to have friends who have added to that total, and I’m happy that I’ve contributed a few myself.
TKZers: What books do you love? Why do you think people love to read? What books should I have added to this post that I missed?