“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?
I read for various reasons depending on my mood, the book and my goal for it, so I may read to relax; get inspired; escape; learn; be entertained; sharpen vocabulary; find comfort in familiar authors; or immerse myself into a new author or culture.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Kay. Now I am off to bake heart-shaped brownies to give out to neighbors.
Good morning, Truant, and Happy Valentine’s Day to you!
That’s a great list of reasons to sit down with a book. I can identify with all of them.
Heart-shaped brownies? Your neighbors are lucky people. Have a wonderfully delicious day.
Great post, Kay. And Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone.
I enjoyed your history of books. Isn’t it interesting that “stories” (not books) started with oral storytelling, and now our latest form of stories is once again “audio” books?
Question #1: What books do I love? I don’t know yet. I wasted my youth on nonfiction. Now, here at TKZ, I am making lists and exploring the world of fiction.
Question #2: Why do people love to read? There has to be a whole different list of answers for nonfiction. But for fiction, readers certainly want to get carried away to a fictive world. And we’ve discussed emotion as the secret ingredient that readers crave in our books. But, there has to be more that brings readers back to the same author and makes them want to read: ? voice, setting, situation ? And there are probably different answers for each genre.
Question #3: Again, I don’t know, You have a great list. I suspect there is a different list of books for each genre, and probably a special list for writers.
Thanks for a great discussion. Have a great day!
Good morning, Steve, and Happy Valentine’s Day!
Interesting point about our returning to audio. We’ve come full-circle.
You bring up a good point with your statement: “And there are probably different answers for each genre.” I guess people gravitate toward particular genres, and romance readers would expect a different experience than thriller fans. I wonder if there’s any common ground there.
Have a great day!
Right, Kay. Each genre will have its own unique attraction to readers. As for common ground between thrillers and romance, I suspect a combination is possible. On my back burner is a mystery/romance/western, currently simmering at 50,000+.words.
Fabulous idea, J! You need to move that mystery/romance/western to the front burner and let us know when it’s done!
Great topic for Valentine’s Day, Kay. Love affair is indeed a good way to describe our relationship with books.
Along that romantic theme, may I suggest an analogy? A new book is like a really good (or really bad) first date. The discovery of someone new and getting to know them, going to someplace new and being immersed in the experience, and coming out richer in knowledge…even if that knowledge is you never want to see that person again!
Some are meh, why did I bother wasting time with them? Some are too depressing, too boring, or too silly for my taste. My favorites are ones where the author’s voice clicks (I’m a sucker for a great voice) or resonates emotionally, or raises so much curiosity, I can’t wait to read another book by that author.
A few lead to a long-term, lasting relationship. I met Raymond Chandler in my teens and we’re still going strong 50+ years later.
Good morning, and Happy Valentine’s Day, Debbie!
What a great analogy you came up with. Reading a work by a particular author for the first time is so like a first date. I found John D. MacDonald after someone mentioned his writing here on TKZ, so I read one of his books, and I couldn’t get enough.
Lucky you – 50+ years with Raymond Chandler. (sigh)
Have a great day.
What she said. 😉
I enjoyed the deep-dive, Kay. Perfect for Valentine’s Day. Debbie’s comment mirrors my own love affair with books.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
Love this analogy, Debbie!
Good morning, Kay, and Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone here at KZB. This is post is near and dear to my book-loving soul and librarian’s heart. You covered a lot of ground in fine fashion in your overview of the history of tomes, printing and novels. No small feat that, especially in just a few words!
The only thing I’d add is the parallel tradition in Asia, with the written word there also going back millennia, and followed by wood block printing in the late 6th/early 7th century A.D. and eventually a version of moveable type. The Tale of Genji, published in Japan in the early 11th century was an early novel. China saw a flood of novels and epics published during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), such as The Water Margin (a tale of Robin Hood like heroes living in marshlands who help overthrow a corrupt government). In college, I read the English translation of the classic 18th century Chinese novel, the five volume (!) Dream of the Red Chamber a novel akin to Gone with the Wind in its scale and scope.
As for me, I enjoy all sorts of books, especially mysteries, thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, but also the odd western, romantic suspense, historical fiction. I love reading non-fiction on history, especially ancient and medieval history, military history, history of science. I also love reading books on stargazing and astronomy, and of course, books on writing craft, and mindset.
From my time working in public libraries, people read for many reasons: to be entertained, to learn, to be informed, to discover new experiences. I helped readers find the next great read, find a book like the one they just finished, a book to help them find a job, raise a child, a book to help them identify old money, or even (said surreptitiously) a book about certain kinds of wild mushrooms (because they were truffle hunting). The books you fall in love with are the ones that, for whatever reason, affect you profoundly, help you grow, or even “just” immerse you in their fictional world so thoroughly that you are changed, even if it’s just in a small way.
Thanks for a wonderful love letter to books on this Valentine’s Day! My wife baked a chocolate bundt cake yesterday and will be frosting it this morning 🙂 Have a very happy day!
Good morning, Dale, and Happy Valentine’s Day to you. A chocolate bundt cake with frosting sounds like a delicious way to celebrate the day.
I was looking forward to your response on the history of books and reading. Although I knew a little about the history of books in Asia, I wasn’t sure I could do it justice in a short article, so I opted to leave it out. Thank you for adding that important piece of the puzzle.
Your experience as a librarian gives you so much insight into what and why people read, and I enjoyed learning about how you helped people find books in all different categories. I’m sure you must have a lot of interesting stories in that regard.
Have a great day!
For the power of fiction we must include The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe (1774). This novel of unrequited love–ending in suicide–was an instant bestseller and propelled its 24-year-old author into fame. Unfortunately, it was so emotionally compelling that several young German men dressed up like the character and shot themselves over similar lost loves. Goethe was aghast. But he kept the royalties.
I look at my preferences over the years, and what I write, as a quest for justice. Thus, thrillers.
Good morning, Jim, and Happy Valentine’s Day.
I guess unrequited love is a realistic topic for the day. I had never heard of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” so I immediately zipped over to Wikipedia to get the summary. Goethe certainly set something in motion with that story, but how sad that young men decided to imitate Werther in real life.
“a quest for justice.” What a worthy thing to write and read about. And copycats would be welcome in that space.
Have a great day.
Why do people love to read? Great question, Kay. I think two underlying reasons – education and entertainment. I grew up in a reading family where our living room was more like a library, and I’ve been a life-long reader. I probably have 500+ books on display and in storage. Maybe one day I’ll get to read them all 😉
Valentines Day is kinda special for me. 44 years ago today I was sworn into Canada’s national police force. Because I was an avid reader, I was a competent writer as well. It’s one reason I was sent to the detective section where I played out my crime fighting career.
Good morning, Garry, and Happy Valentine’s Day. And Happy Anniversary on your entry into the Canadian national police force. I’m grateful for all those who serve to keep us safe, and I”m happy you’re writing about it.
500+ books! That’s going to take a while. When our son was a pre-schooler, we’d go to the library once a week and come home with an armload of books. After lunch, we’d sit on the couch, and I’d ask, “Which book should we read?” I can still remember his tone of voice and the expression on his face when he answered. It was something between delight and tomfoolery. He’d say, “Let’s read them ALL.” Good memories.
“Let’s read them all!” A moment to remember. I recall a moment when I was in the USC bookstore, realizing that if I started right then, I’d never be able to “read them all.” In a way, that moment freed me of any compulsion I might have had to read everything.
I had the same reaction working in libraries stuffed full of books on every topic you could imagine. For book-a-holics, there is never enough time 🙂
My father had over 5,000 books in the house. His goal was to retire and read them all. Sadly, a heart attack ended that plan.
5000+ books! I’m so sorry to hear that your father wasn’t able to fulfill his dream of reading them all, but I hope he found satisfaction in the ones he did read.
He read anything. A paperback was always in his pocket. Kindles were still new when he died in 2001. As people visited after his funeral several asked for a book to remember him by. About 50 books went that day. Another dozen or so went to the rare book dealer. Several boxes went to a book fair.
When my mother moved out of the house we had a book sale. Volunteers from Reading is Fundamental helped. Looking at boxes and boxes of books, my brother came up with the idea of selling by the pound. I think it was 50 cents a pound. Most paperbacks were $1.00. The most expensive book was a platt book that went for $8. At the end of the sale about a dozen books were donated to a book fair. RIF and our family split about $3000 from the sale.
What a lovely idea to have a book owned by a friend as a remembrance. Well done.
I once estimated my father’s collection at over 3,000 books. I don’t believe he intended to read them all personally. They included 4 or 5 encyclopedias and quite a few works for children, e.g., “My Bookhouse.” He passed away at 57, just weeks before I started college . . .
So sorry to hear of the loss of your father. What an amazing collection of books he left.
I still have the Britannica from the 20’s and a few other things: “Winnie The Poo” and “When We Were Very Young,” with bookplates inscribed in my father’s finest hand, with my name and “Christmas, 1944.” I was five, then, just starting to read.
What precious memories. And to have the books to remind you is a great gift.
I love Michael Crichton’s books. I have read them all including the ones that were not finished before his death. His estate could of done better.
I love Slaughterhouse-five. So it goes.
Michael Crichton and Kurt Vonnegut. Great additions to the list.
Looking at “the first books”, I read a translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 30-70CE was an interesting time. Do the books that didn’t make the cut for the Bible count as fiction?
How did you forget The New Prometheus? Mary Shelly scaring the crap out of the great literary giants of her time and inventing science fiction in 1818?
Ah yes. Mary Shelley inventing science fiction at the age of 20. “Frankenstein” should have made the list.
Books I love: Ones with colorful binding and dust jackets. Ones with magic inside. Ones that move me. Books that are puzzles. Books that challenge. Books that take me away or take me home to my memories. Books I can swim in, wallow in, dive into. Works that make me want to tell others about them. Works I can feel. Works that echo within me year after year.
Why people read: Just for fun. See Dale’s list, above.I suspect an inner urge to project oneself is a factor, to see oneself in others, all neatly bound, with ones own full-color image on the cover.
Books that should be added: I’d answer that at length, but I’m due in San Pedro for rehearsal an hour from now. So sorry.
Beautiful description of the books you love, JGuenther. Thank you.
I feel comfortable surrounded by books. I love the feel and smell of them. Signed books by friends and authors I admire are my real treasures. Thanks for a delightful post and Happy Valentine’s Day.
PS: For Valentine’s Day I gave Don a book.
A book is a great Valentine’s Day gift! Good choice. (And fewer calories than a box of chocolates.)
Have a wonderful day.
I guess I like to read because words are easier to get along with than people. Yeah, I know, cynical.
Books can be shut when they make you mad; not so people. Books are always there for you; not so people.
Books transport me to places I’ve never been and I don’t even have to set foot outside my cave.
Stories of words can be made to have happy endings. Not so in life.
Maybe reading books is loved by folks because it’s something we can control. You can’t say that about life so much.
I like stories that entertain with a smattering of love and humor, a chunk of action, and wisdom for doing life in the best way possible.
Hi Deb. Happy Valentine’s Day!
I like the way you put it. Yeah, books are great friends. They’re always there for you. And you don’t even have to feed them or take them for a walk.
“I like stories that entertain with a smattering of love and humor, a chunk of action, and wisdom for doing life in the best way possible.” Good definition. I’ll go along with that.
I LOVE to read and frankly, I miss reading at the pace I was able to keep as a kid. 2021 was, in particular, one of the worst years for me in number of books read in a long time. Thankfully it’s still early in 2022 but thus far, 2022 has been just as chaotic. But I’ve still got 10 months to turn it around. 😎
One of the main reasons I became an avid reader as a kid was because I was part of a large family in a small house—a loving house, but small nonetheless, so reading was a chance to go find someplace by myself and escape. And words can never express my gratitude for the western novels by Zane Grey (and TV westerns) which carried me away from my flat and featureless state on the east coast to points west where, several years later, I finally got a chance to move to & call my beloved home.
A new appreciation I have for reading is that in verbal discourse in this day and age, people have utterly lost the capability to interact in respectful discussion, which makes reading more important than ever.
As to what I like to read, historical fiction set in the 19th century American West is still my favorite, & some historical mystery.
Also like some modern mystery/thriller/suspense titles–and thankfully with TKZ I always have lots of go-to books for those categories.
A problem I would identify is that despite the fact there are a bazillion books published, it’s not always easy to find books to read. I find this especially to be the case with historical fiction. Not that there aren’t millions of books, but nearly all of them tend to be built around romance (nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re looking for) but I like historical fiction that gets beyond that theme–that narrows the choices considerably. Although I suspect the problem is connecting writers and readers in this vast market.
Hi BK. I’m glad you weighed in on this subject. It sounds like you’re an example of how childhood reading can focus someone’s life. Good for you.
I agree with you — even though there are hundreds of millions of books, it can be hard to find one that fits the specific slice of genre one is looking for. Thank goodness for digital library books where I can read a book and decide if I want to buy it.
Have a good evening.
Love this post! I read fiction to escape and nonfiction to learn. And when a fiction book teaches me something, that’s even better.
Good way to look at it, Patricia! I feel the same way.
I like the portability of my kindle, but nothing substitutes for the feel of an actual book in my hands. I have books that were my father’s, and I have a notebook where he kept a record of everything he read in the last several years of his life. I have to admit that I was surprised at some of the books on his list. Two of my favorites that could be on your list are Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and The Chosen by Chaim Potok.
Great additions to the list, Joyce. Thank you.
Those personal belongings that our parents left us are so precious. To have the notebook of your father’s reading list is wonderful. And to find a couple of surprises in it is even better.