Give me more!
Alright, calm down. There are plenty of book history website out there. These are just a few of my favourites.
From Tablet to Tablet: A History of the Book
I stumbled across this University of Michigan class website one day and had a blast perusing it. The students’ final projects – covering a wide range of topics including “runic graffiti,” Islamic book practices, and Medieval music notion – are all available for public viewing. The website also features some digitized manuscript fragments with accompanying descriptions. Don’t know anything about book history? No problem! Everything is written in very clear and accessible language.
Readers & Readerships
A class website we made in my second year. This site is the perfect starting point for budding book historians, as it covers tons of interesting topics in short pieces that are all written in accessible language.
My absolute favourite website about illuminated manuscripts. Like their Facebook page if you’re interested in having gorgeous screenshots of manuscripts pop up on your news feed a couple of times a day.
And, of course, there are plenty of book history books out there too.
Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper – Nicholson Baker
Never trust a man with a last name as his first name. Nicholson Baker is completely off his rocker, but in the best way possible. His book describes the preservation efforts of (mostly American) libraries, and reveals that, in order to save the intellectual content of their texts through microfilming and digitization, newspapers and books are often destroyed. Double Fold‘s points are especially relevant now, as we enter the era of digital libraries. Overall, this is a great book, but make sure you take Baker’s words with a couple grains of salt as he sometimes takes his arguments a little too far.
The Book on the Bookshelf – Henry Petroski
Petroski’s a civil engineer by trade, and he sometimes lets his obvious passion for quantitative information take over him, but don’t let that scare you away from this gem. If you’re interested in learning about the history of the shape of the book, and how it has influenced and has been influenced by book storage options, this is the book for you. Note, however, that this is definitely not a good place to start if you’re just testing the book history waters.
A History of Illuminated Mauscripts – Christopher de Hamel
If you’re ever at a cocktail party with book historians, chances are good that you’ll hear de Hamel’s name pop up at least once. The man is a book history God, and this book is one of his flawless creations. I first read it for an Illuminated Manuscripts course, but since then I’ve referred to it numerous times. de Hamel’s language and writing are accessible, and the book is brimming with images from some of the world’s most beautiful manuscripts. And, the cherry on top? Despite being pretty enormous, this book only costs about $40 – new!
A History of Reading – Alberto Manguel
This book was assigned reading for one of my introduction courses, and it’s been one of my favourite book history books ever since. It doesn’t deal with any of its topics comprehensively, but it provides a great overview of the history of reading. Plus, there are lots of pictures. I like books with lots of pictures. As an added bonus, Alberto Manguel narrated a four-part TV miniseries, which is available for viewing on TVO’s website. If you’re not up for reading the book, this show can serve as a pretty good replacement, as it frequently quotes the book verbatim.
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary – Simon Winchester
I stumbled across this gem at a used book sale on campus. As I was waiting in the check-out line, three different people came up to me and told me what a great book I was about to buy. Simon Winchester is an incredible writer, and makes his history book read more like a novel. You just have to give The Meaning of Everything a read if you’re interested in learning about the history of one book in particular, rather than the history of books in general.
This Is Not the End of the Book – Jean-Claude Carrière, Umberto Eco, and Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
This book is actually a translated and edited transcript of a conversion between Carrière and Eco, curated by de Tonnac. The two men discuss the history and the future of the book, and – quelle surprise! – argue that it’s not going anywhere any time soon. Carrière and Eco remain intelligent and articulate throughout, but their conversation somehow stays lighthearted and, at times, is quite humourous. This book is great for people who want to understand why book history matters. Be warned, though: there is a lot of digression. A lot.