About Books

Traditionally, a book is a compilation of related ideas recorded in writing or images, usually on paper, with one edge of each page bound together into a single volume. The volume may include an outside cover for labeling, advertising or protective purposes. In the modern world, the term “book” has come to be used for digital collections of data that were once available only as physical volumes. These digital collections of text and images are known as electronic books, or e-books. Scientifically, books are known as monographs, which is a term used to distinguish the format from that of periodicals, such as magazines, journals and newspapers.

Early History of Books

Books originated from 4,400 to 5,000 years ago. Being such an ancient invention, the specific date is unknown, but it is estimated that throughout history, around 130 million different books have been published.

Writing was invented around 3,000 B.C. For hundreds of years, the primary media for writing were glyphs carved on stone or etched in clay. The Ancient Egyptians also used papyrus as a medium for writing. Papyrus was made by weaving together the stems of a common wetland plant. The woven stems were then pounded out with a hammer to make a flat sheet. Several sheets of papyrus were often glued together to form what was called a scroll.

Scrolls are considered the first major precursor to traditionally formatted books, and they continued to be the dominant medium for writing until the 3rd century A.D. After the Egyptians originated the format, it was later adopted by most other civilizations, including the Greeks, Romans and Chinese.

The first written account of a book formatted in the modern style is from the 1st century A.D. This format is known as a codex. It was first developed by the Romans, and it gradually replaced the scroll. By the 6th century A.D., scrolls had been all but replaced by codices. During this same time, papyrus became difficult to obtain because Egypt became increasingly isolated from Western civilization. Papyrus was eventually replaced by parchment, which is a thin material made from the hides of animals.

Books in the Middle Ages

As the Roman Empire declined in the 5th century A.D., the writing of books became a duty adopted by Christian monks. St. Benedict promoted reading and literature, and his influence made reading and writing an integral aspect of monastic life. Books were written and copied by hand in the early monasteries, making them rare and expensive. Small monasteries may only have held one or two dozen books. However, by the 9th century, some monasteries had amassed collections as large as 500 books. The two largest libraries at the time each held about 2,000 books.

Bookmaking was a laborious process, and duties were divided into various specialties. The specialties surrounding the printing of books that emerged in the Middle Ages include the following:

  • Copying – Copying referred to the basic production of books, most of which were copied from an original manuscript.
  • Calligraphy – Calligraphy was the production of fine handwritten works.
  • Correction – Correctors compared the final copied draft to the original.
  • Illumination – Illuminators produced drawings or paintings, known as illustrations.
  • Rubricating – Rubricators painted red lettering in books to emphasize words or phrases.
  • Binding – Binders collected the pages of parchment and fastened the left edges together to create a codex. The books were often covered at both ends by wood sheathed in leather.

Before the 7th century, the words in books were written without spaces. This made the books difficult to read for Irish monks who were not as familiar with Latin. These monks introduced word spacing, but it did not become commonly used until 500 years later.

In the 13th century, the world experienced a rise in the demand for books. To meet this demand, original books were unbound, allowing several copyists to work on copying a single book simultaneously. Before this, a single scribe worked on copying a complete book. Later, when book production was carried out by secular guilds rather than monasteries, this became the primary system for producing books.

The Printing Press

The first printing press originated sometime in China in the 3rd century. It was made of carved woodblocks. An image of a book page could be engraved in a wood block. Ink was then applied and the image was transferred to papyrus, parchment or textiles. While woodblocks were commonly used in Asia, they did not catch on in Europe where books were primarily handwritten until around the year 1500.

The way books were produced changed forever in 1450 when Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press that used movable type. Movable type allowed the operator to change what could be printed by arranging individual letters in the press, making it easier and less expensive to print books. It is said that in the 50 years after the invention of movable type, more books were produced than in all of history before that time.

In the 19th century, the printing press received a major upgrade when a steam-powered version was invented. This steam-powered press could produce over 1,000 sheets per hour. Later, in the 19th century, monotype and linotype typesetters were invented to increase the speed in which the type could be changed to 6,000 letters per hour. Previously, it took one hour to change a maximum of 2,000 letters.

Due to these advances in the printing press, by the 1950s, about 200,000 new books were being printed per year.

Modern Book Manufacturing

For 450 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press, book publishing had changed very little, except for advances in typesetting and automation. The basics remained the same. The type was arranged, ink was spread on the type and paper was pressed against it.

Today, the printing press is more of a novelty and is only used by hobbyists or for special-edition, collectible books. Most books are printed through a process called offset lithography. In offset lithography, an image of a page is transferred to a metal plate through a photographic or digital process. The image on the plate repels water, so when water is spread on the plate, oil-based ink adheres only to the image. The ink on the plate is then transferred to a water-resistant sheet before a final transfer to paper.

In sheet-fed lithographs, four book pages are printed on a single sheet, two on one side and two on the other. After printing, the pages are sequenced and folded in the centre. However, most books are not printed on single sheets. They are printed using one continuous roll of paper that is trimmed and cut after printing.

After the pages are printed, they go to a bindery. Paperback binding is a simpler and faster process that uses glue to bind the pages together and to the cover. Many modern hardback books are also bound primarily with glue, but the pages of higher quality books may be drilled and stitched.

Recently, digital processes have begun to be incorporated in book manufacturing. This process uses electronic scanners and toner-based laser printers. This type of printing is more expensive than lithograph printing, so it is usually only used for small runs of less than 2,000 copies.

Digital Books

In today’s world of mobile electronics, digitally formatted books have become very popular, eliminating the need for a physical book. Any computer can be used to display an electronic book, usually referred to as an e-book. E-books consist only of a digital text and image file that can be viewed through e-book reading software.

The popularity of e-books has increased as self-contained e-book readers and tablet computers have gained prominence. Online booksellers produced some of the first e-book readers, which were later joined by readers manufactured by major electronics companies.

Book Types by Content

Books are usually categorized by their content or subject-matter, and the two most basic categories by content are fiction and non-fiction.

Fictional books are regarded as non-factual, untrue or fantasy. They are read primarily for entertainment purposes, but they can convey important social and moral ideas. The most common type of fictional book is the novel. Novels are stories involving the literary elements of setting, theme and plot that are from 17,500 to 40,000 words in length.

Non-fictional books are informational in nature and include reference books, such as almanacs, dictionaries and atlases. Other non-fictional books commonly used are school textbooks, instructional books and cookbooks.

Book Classification

Library scientists drastically improved book classification systems in the 20th century. A worldwide association called the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) developed the International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBD) and the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Every edition of a book printed by major publishers is assigned a unique ISBN that identifies the country, publisher and title of the book.

Large collections of books, such as those held by libraries may be classified according to other systems. Fictional books are usually classified by the name of the author, whereas non-fictional books are often classified by the Dewey Decimal System, which groups books by subject-matter.