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500 Years of History in 500 Words

by Rachel Goodwin

It’s easy to assume that books have always existed and that you could always pick a book off your shelf or download one onto your e-reader. Most people today take books for granted. Haven’t there always been libraries filled with shelves upon shelves, volumes upon volumes? Haven’t lawyers and scholars always had their offices lined with books or even stacked haphazardly?

The simple answer is no. Books have not always existed. For centuries, information was stored on the clay tablets of Mesopotamia or the painted hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt or the scrolls of ancient China. Fast forward several centuries and we see European monks laboring by hand in scriptoriums to painstakingly create beautifully illuminated manuscript books on calfskin called vellum. (Yes, this means that even the earliest books weren’t on paper!)

So how did books become what they are today? It wasn’t an easy process. The first movable type printing press appeared in the Western world in 1439. This was the first major change in the development of the book. The printing press allowed more books to be printed at a faster rate. Scribes could make mistakes as they tried to copy books in dim candlelight, and type-setters would make the same mistakes as they set the layout for the books in the same dim conditions. But in the time it took a scribe to copy a single book, thousands could be printed by the hand press.

The Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought another major change. Steam power meant that presses could crank out more pages than by hand. Cheaper paper meant that book costs would decrease but the quality of the books also decreased because the paper was so poor quality. As a result of the cheaper paper, publishers started to offer binding on their books. (Yes, this meant that books previously weren’t nicely bound. If you wanted your book to be bound with a cover and spine, you had to pay for someone to do it for you!)

The mid-1940s brought yet another change to book publishing: the paperback. Now books were even cheaper because the binding didn’t have to be the cloth over cardboard hardback editions. Paperbacks were cheaper to produce and buy. But this didn’t mean that hardbacks disappeared, just like manuscripts didn’t disappear immediately after the printing press made its debut.

The new millennium brought even more new changes to book publishing. Books had started going through a more rigorous process to being published so that formatting and errors were caught before the book was even printed. As technology and the Internet appeared on the market (also at a more affordable price) books began to appear on the computers. E-books and e-readers have gained popularity for the convenience of carrying a lot of books in one small tablet and for being a lot cheaper than hard copies (since they don’t have to be printed at all!)

So here ends our (roughly) 500 years of history in 500 words. We have seen books go from being hand-copied and expensive to printed and expensive to printed on paper and less expensive to hundreds available on your brightly lit digital screen. Over these 500 years, books have become more accessible to more people. What will the future of the book be? Will the dream of every student come true? Will we someday be able to put a book (in whatever form it takes) under our pillow at night and in the morning have all the information in our brain ready to go? Who knows? We will just have to wait and see what the future holds in store for the book and for us.

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