This beautifully comprehensively illustrated history of the book is comprised of fourteen new essays that look at the latest thinking on the subject from the point of view of a number of interrelated disciplines. The history of the book is complex beginning with ideas behind the question: ‘What is a book?’ These essays tackle everything from the origins of writing to digital publication and the future.

Most of us take books for granted and yet how could we imagine a world without them? For all the learning, practical knowledge and entertainment they bring us we cram them on shelves, perhaps to be forgotten, or discard them when read, possibly to be pulped. We are occasionally pulled up by a book that has an aesthetic appeal or a comforting feel to it. Books are tactile, they are designed products, crafted, they can be art works. They are physical objects – except they aren’t necessarily that any longer now that we have the digital format. Digital being the latest in a long line of revolutionary developments in the nature of the book over the centuries, from clay tablets to bamboo concertina books to illuminated manuscripts to the printed tome and mass produced global bestsellers.

The origin of the ‘book’ is thousands of years in the past the exact date a bone of contention depending on what you see as a book. If that sounds a little esoteric it’s made very clear in these easily readable but scholarly essays. ‘What is a book?’ is a complex question, is it a physical thing or an idea? This is as much a philosophical question as a political or factual one. I wont go through the theories that are part of this study but I will mention one definition. Robert Darnton’s 1982 essay What is the History of Books? Suggests it might be called, ‘the social and cultural history of communicating by print.’

In his introduction Raven explains these new essays attempt to answer that question about what is a book from different perspectives and disciplines. The Oxford Illustrated history of the Book examines how the history and development of the book has coincided with human development; looking at empires, religious movements, economic and political change, geographical boundaries and demographic change, technological shifts and the intellectual maturation of human thought. Several of the essays explore the darker side of the story; the desire to limit book distribution and control the dissemination of knowledge, the spreading of destructive ideologies, censorship and book burning. The meaning and purpose of the book has changed, grown over time; from accounting and record keeping to ways of conveying ideas, to doctrinal tracts and ideology but also philosophy, art, culture, learning and enjoyment. Expertise from many fields informs this book; bibliography, cultural and social history,  literary scholarship, palaeography, philology, linguistics, anthropology, arts and science, and media studies. One of the major points that Raven highlights, and is evident from the essays, is that the concept of the nation can be contrary or misleading in exploring the history of the book. There isn’t one origin point, no easy linear path from then to now. There is no single history but a series of overlapping, interlocking developments and parallel paths that make up the tale of the book.

This paragraph is a brief and no doubt traduced introduction to the subjects of the essays here, apologies for the truncation and cherry picking. The Ancient World Eleanor Robson notes that writing has at least four origin points; Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese characters and a pre-conquest Mesoamerican form since lost/destroyed. We learn that the earliest known accounting books date back to 3200 BCE, (around the city of Uruk) and that alphabetical script and the use of paper date from to the ninth/tenth century BCE, (the oldest surviving paper book a Buddhist Piyjing Sutra from 256 BCE). Robson addresses the function of books in the ancient world, the type materials and their social and economic value. Barbara Crostini’s Byzantium looks at cultural development between the Roman age and the rule of Constantine the Great and the rise of Christian literature and illuminated text. Cynthia Brokaw deals with Medieval and Early Modern East Asia from Bamboo and wood block volumes to printing under the Song dynasty, 960-1279 CE, as well as Korean and Japanese developments. David Rundle tackles Medieval Western Europe. The power of exclusion and scholarship, (the church and clerical monopoly), adornment and the book as religious relic. Renaissance and Reformation by James Raven and Goran Proof brings us to Gutenberg and printing, exporting and distributing texts, pamphlets, translation and state/church control of the trade in books. In Managing Information Ann Blair talks about the transmission of culture, codification and the sixteenth century origins of the Frankfurt book fair. In The Islamic World Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M Bloom deals with Arabic script, the early Qur’an, the Persian Book of Kings, poetry, art and design. Enlightenment and Revolution, Jeffrey Freedman, introduces the novel and Goethe, book production, sales and piracy, intellectual movements, censorship, challenges to authority, the influence of reading on the female mind, (the fear that women wouldn’t be able to distinguish fact from fiction?), revolution and industrial growth. South Asia Graham Shaw deals with India, Pakistan, Nepal and the many cross border, supranational languages and religious ideas, (Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity). Industrialisation, Marie-Françoise Cachin, talks about cheaper production of paper, the overhaul of printing, the introduction of lithography, new means of transportation, the rise of education, fiction, retail and author rights. In Modern China, Japan and Korea, Christopher A Reed and M. William Steele discuss events leading to the Cultural Revolution and new political Ideas. Globalisation, Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, looks at copyright, censorship, authorship, piracy, new technology, the arrival of the paperback, UNESCO and decolonisation. And finally, Books Transformed by Jeffrey T. Schnapp looks at technology and the future.

Several of the illustrations are exquisite and the essays are stimulating and thought provoking. This is a scholarly work but it’s also a coffee table book intended to be widely read and accessible. This is a very well curated collection. I read The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book through but it’s possible to read individual chapters and pick and choose too to that takes your fancy. Overall a complex history reveals the philosophy and progress of the book as a major element in human history. Fascinating and beautiful.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book ed. James Raven
Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780198702986, hardback, August 2020.

Reviewed by Paul Burke
Personal read 5*
Not a group read.