Celebrating Books With Martyn Lyons's Latest, 'A Living History'

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Books are a tremendous presence and inspiration around here -- we've previously explored how they've been made from the Middle Ages to today, what the future might have in store for them, and why analog books still enchant us. In Books: A Living History, Australian historian Martyn Lyons (of A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World fame) explores how books became one of the most efficient and enduring information technologies ever invented -- something we seem to forget in an era plagued by techno-dystopian alarmism about the death of books.

It is difficult now to imagine how some of the great turning points in Western history could have been achieved without [the book]. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment all relied on the printed word for their spread and permanent influence. For two and a half millennia, humanity used the book, in its manuscript or printed form, to record, to administer, to worship and to educate. --Martyn Lyon

Illustration from 1889 showing three women reading the three successive volumes of a novel, possibly borrowed from a circulating library

Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans Picture

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Yves Gellie / Corbis

Defining the book itself is a risky operation. I prefer to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and so I offer a very loose definition. The book, for example, does not simply exist as a bound text of sheets of printed paper -- the traditional codex with which we are most familiar today. Such a definition forgets two millennia of books before print, and the various forms that textual communication took before the codex was invented.

A traditional definition based only on the codex would also exclude hypertext and the virtual book, which have done away with the book's conventional material support. I prefer to embrace all these forms, from cuneiform script to the printed codex to the digitized electronic book, and to trace the history of the book as far back as the invention of writing systems themselves. The term 'book,' then, is a kind of shorthand that stands for many forms of written textual communication adopted in past societies, using a wide variety of materials. --Martyn Lyons

A 5th-century mosaic from the mausoleum of Empress Galla Placidia in Ravenna

akg-images / Cameraphoto

A fresco at Pompeii depicting a woman browsing through a scroll

From the first papyrus scrolls to the painstakingly made illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to today's ebooks and the iPad, Lyons distills the history and evolution of books in the context of a parallel cultural evolution and, as in the case of Gutenberg's printing press, revolution.

The library at Haeinsa Temple in Korea houses the Tripitaka Koreana

Leonard de Selva / Corbis

Amman woodcuts showing a compositor with his composing stick and two-page forme, and printers and bookbinders at work

Navigating through 2,000 gloriously illustrated years of literary milestones, genres, and groundswells, from serial and dime novels to paperbacks to manga, Lyons ends with a bittersweet contemplation of the fate of the book and the bibliophile after the turn of the digital century.

A reading scene by George Morland (1763-1804) entitled Domestic Happiness

Christi's Images / Bridgeman Art Library

In this hand-colored engraving by British humorist Thomas Rowlandson, a writer has some difficulty in persuading a bookseller to accept his manuscript

British Museum, London

The frontispiece to a 1786 edition of the Index of Prohibited Books, showing books being burned

Bridgeman Art Library

Calmann-Lèvy's bookshop on the fashionable Boulevard des Italiens in Paris

Stefano Blanchetti / Corbis

Both a cultural time-capsule and an encyclopedia of bibliophilia, Books: A Living History is an invaluable record of our collective intellectual and informational journey across two millennia of written language and a profound peer into its future.

Images: Getty Publications. Via my mind on books.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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