Cave, Roderick & Sara Ayad. The History of the Book in 100 Books.

Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2014.

As a kid, I learned to appreciate books as physical artifacts, as much as for their content. In high school, I learned to love the smell of rare and used bookstores. And in library school, in the late 1960s, I finally took a few courses in the history of books and printing, where I learned about papermaking, the history and practice of typesetting, and the arts of illustration and bookbinding.

This lush volume brings back much of that learning process. The hundred books it considers are grouped in eleven chapters, beginning with paleolithic cave paintings (only a “book” by a considerable stretch of terminology), the original cuneiform Gilgamesh epic, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and ending with the electronic Beowulf (now available online to everyone) and original works for the Kindle e-reader, which have not (and probably never will) ever be published on paper.

During that 4,000-year span (not counting the caves), you’ll learn about Aztec codices, the first joke book (by Wynkyn de Worde, 1498), the first photo illustrations, Newton’s Principia, early children’s books, the invention of Braille, the first “American” book (the Bay Psalm Book), hidden printing in wartime and in Soviet Russia, the development of the cookbook, Japanese manga, and many other byways in publishing and printing that most of us never give thought to. It’s a large-format volume on glossy paper with color illustrations on nearly every page and if you have the slightest curiosity about the history of books, you’re likely to lose an entire weekend drooling over it.


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