A brief overview of reading history: the creation of the first books

A brief overview of reading history:

Our human identity has traditionally included books and storytelling. This is why stories are for everyone, no matter your background, as author Cerrie Burnell demonstrates. Everyone has experienced the wonderful sensation of holding a book in their hands. Whether it’s a brand-new gift, something we checked out from a fantastic library, or even a treasured family heirloom that has been read repeatedly over the years…

Yet possessing a tale and knowing that you may enter or exit it whenever you like has a distinct quality. But how did the first book begin? my daughter questioned, and I was at a loss for words. I’ve simply always recognized that books had a certain kind of enchantment. But the history of a book and how it came to be is a unique cross-cultural odyssey that travels all over the world.


Speaking and prehistoric drawings

We had stories before we had books. A retelling of everyday events with the intention of entertaining or imparting knowledge was known as storytelling. Sharing laughter and warding off the gloom or peril via storytelling was a common practice. This is the origin of fairy tales and the power of language and spoken word.

There are numerous examples of earlier civilizations documenting their life through stone carvings or cave drawings, in addition to storytelling. But, the first examples of “writing”—whether on stone slabs or imprinted onto pieces of bark—were mainly used to keep track of data like lists or numbers. The early written notes were actually more about communicating math than literature because people wanted to record their financial transactions.


Slaves and “pages”

The first civilization to employ “pages” in this sense was the ancient Egyptians. They accomplished this by weaving together papyrus plant stalks and then crushing the weaved stems flat. As a result, a “page” was generated, which when put together, became a scroll.

For hundreds of years, this method was employed, and the Greeks and Romans quickly embraced it. To store or carry the scroll, they would carefully wind it around a substantial piece of wood. The scroll would then be ceremoniously unwound and read aloud. Up until the 8th century AD, this technique was employed.

Papyrus was in short supply a little earlier, therefore parchment made of calf or deer skin began to be used since it was less likely to tear. After being treated with alkaline, the paper would be inked over.


A history of picture books

Beautiful hand-drawn images on parchment started to appear from 600 AD. “Illuminated manuscripts” were the name given to these colorful, painstakingly produced drawings, and they were stunning to look at. They aided in telling the tale or driving home the significance of the message written on the parchment. In actuality, this was the start of picture books.

In addition, the Greeks and Romans created wax tablets, which were wooden blocks covered in layers of wax that could be used repeatedly to write on and erase messages (kind of like an etch-a-sketch!).


China is credited for producing the very first book ever to be printed on paper. Mulberries, hemp, bark, and even fish were used to create a thick pulp that could be pressed and dried to create paper. Each piece of paper, known as a “leaf,” was about the size of a newspaper. After being printed on wooden printing blocks, which is another word for a leaf, it became known as a “folio.”

The very first novels

Individual books—which were quite valuable—became formed over time. Some of these books contained extremely significant information or religious teachings, while others contained glorious, evil, or fantastic tales. The earliest known work of literature is The Epic of Gilgamesh, a mythological account of a prominent historical political figure.


The Jikji, a compendium of Buddhist Zen teachings, was printed in Korea in the 14th century using movable (metal) type. A printing machine was created by a German named John Gutenburg to print the Gutenburg Bible a century later, in 1454, and printers soon sprang up all across Europe. Now it’s much simpler to print books!

Aldus Manutious established a printing factory in Venice with the intention of producing little books that told the stories of the Greek Classics. He wanted wealthy people to be able to pack the book into a satchel and ride their bicycles while carrying it, allowing books to be transferred everywhere.


Book clubs and publishers

The first book covers were published in 1832. Rewritten gothic horror stories were published in penny novels in America and Great Britain, earning them the moniker Penny Dreadful. The earliest book clubs were formed when friends joined together to split the cost of the dark, violent books because not everyone could afford to buy one book at a time.

Aiming at more affluent households, prospective publishers began producing hardcover books in the 19th century. There was a lot of snobbery around the different types of books: hardcovers were seen as outstanding examples of high literature, while paperbacks were denigrated as being less intelligent or foolish.

An American publishing company that distributed books by mail order was founded by two brothers named Boni. It faced some challenges but eventually emerged victorious to become Random House.


In 1935, Penguin, a very successful British publisher that produced books with distinct branding and broad appeal, closely followed the Boni brothers. This was merely the beginning of the publishing industry as we know it, and with the development of commonplace computers, books on tape or CD (now known as audiobooks), and the ebook or Kindle, it flourished even further.

With enterprises shipping to all seven continents, people are reading and accessing tales in a variety of formats.


Every story is the same

Like stories, books are a universal phenomena that belong to everyone. No particular cast of characters or narrative style has any sort of sway over another. All stories have a home on the bookcases of the libraries around the world, just like all civilizations and histories do. It’s a kind of enchantment for me to have a tangible book in my hands, whether it’s a hardcover or a paperback. (But, I also enjoy listening to audiobooks in the late hours of the night.) Maybe you should write that book if you can’t find one that captures how you see the world.

It’s magical for the soul to learn about other cultures and find ourselves reflected in the pages of great stories; it teaches us to be resilient and kind, among other things.


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