What are among mankind’s greatest achievements? Greatest inventions? Greatest triumphs of intelligence, science, technology and innovation? The telegraph, telephone, radio, television, the moving picture, the camera and photograph, the typewriter, the internet, the sewing-machine, automobile, steam-engine, the Industrial Revolution, the cotton gin, lightbulb, flashlight, fleshlight, dynamo-torches and microwave dinners…?
Mankind has had as many high-points in the history of the world as it has had depressingly low points. But of all the things that man has created, probably one of the most important is the book.
This whole posting is gonna be about…books?
First, a general history, but then, a deeper look at some of the most famous books in the history of books, and how they have shaped, influenced or otherwise affected the world and modern culture today.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when books were unknown. But in a dim and distant past, before Justin Bieber ever existed, there was a time before books.
Slates and Tablets
When writing was first created in the Middle East and Mediterranean during the time of the ancients, writing was first produced on clay or stone tablets. This was due to the form of writing, known as cuneiform, which was made up of wedge-shapes, arranged and pressed or chipped into damp clay, or sheets of stone.
Obviously, just a few of these tablets or slates would be extremely heavy, and carrying around a whole heap of them would be a serious pain in the ass. So the idea of binding them together never occurred due to sheer impracticality. Nevertheless, in the 21st century, we’ve come full-circle, and people still carry around tablets today, albeit, ones supplemented with electricity.
Oooh, scrolls! Fancy!
Scrolls, made of vellum, parchment or papyrus (the ancestor of modern paper) had certain advantages over tablets. Scrolls could be rolled up and were relatively portable. They were lighter and could hold much more information than tablets. But scrolls were not without faults.
Imagine going to the famous ancient Library of Alexandria, in Egypt. This famous institution, the Ancient Roman equivalent of Google, housed innumerable thousands of scrolls, tablets and books on almost every subject imaginable – Science, mathematics, medicine, engineering, great inventions, and the works and researchers of countless great ancients. Great men such as Euclid and Archimedes (who honoured us with the first streak in history) studied, wrote and worked here.
But imagine what a huge pain in the ass it would be, to go to the library and try to find a particular scroll.
As organised as everything might be, in pigeonholes, shelves, cases and on tables, one issue now becomes apparent – With all the documents rolled up, it’s not easy to find exactly which document you want, without unrolling it, first. There’s nowhere to put a title or author’s name on the outside of a scroll. Frustrating, huh?
But on top of that, scrolls could have many, many pages. Could you imagine having to unroll scroll after scroll, page after page, to find one particular document, and having to roll them all up again…IN ORDER…when you were done?
Clearly, something more efficient had to be found.
The First Books
The first books ever created, or more properly called, ‘Codices‘, (sing. ‘Codex‘) were invented by those smart Italians – The Ancient Romans! Originally, books were made out of wooden tablets onto which information had been written. To keep things neat and tidy, holes were hammered or drilled down one side of each tablet, and they were then threaded and tied together with string, to form…a book! It was much easier to read something simply by turning a page, instead of having to unroll, roll, unroll, re-roll, separate, twist and turn scrolls all day long.
The problem was that with so much writing around, if everything was compiled into a scroll, it would be so large and cumbersome and fiddly to use, most people would give up!
A book is a collection of writing split into pages, which are bound along one side, with a front cover, a back cover, and a spine to hold everything together. Strictly speaking, while all codices are books, not all books are codices. As to be defined as a codex, a book must have hardback covers! Ooh, fancy.
The book had other advantages over the scroll. Apart from compactness and ease of access, a book was also much more efficient. A scroll is only ever written on one side of the paper or parchment. The result is that yards and yards of parchment is wasted on the other side, which is left blank. This could make scrolls expensive! A book, on the other hand, used both sides of the paper or parchment for writing, making everything more efficient and compact.
Books, ca. 700.A.D.
Soon, everything was written in book-form. It was just so much more convenient. But there were other issues – until the mid-1400s, all books, save a very slim minority, were handwritten. Every single letter, stroke, page, paragraph and sentence. This made books phenomenally expensive! When a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg showed up and created the first movable-type printing-press, suddenly, books became cheaper and faster to produce! And this is where things really started to change.
The Impact of the Press
With the printing-press, more books could be produced faster and cheaper. This meant that more people could buy them, own them and read them. This meant that literacy improved, and that learned people with ideas and information could write and produce even more books!
Famous Books Throughout History
Let’s have a look at some of the most famous, important or influential books ever to be written, or to come off the press, and how and/or why they have impacted the world. These are not presented in any chronological order, or order of importance.
Book: The Gutenberg Bible
When Published: Ca. 1455
Where Published: Mainz, Germany.
The Gutenberg Bible is the first book of significance ever to be mass-produced. Ever to be printed!…But NOT the first book which Gutenberg produced.
Contrary to what you might think, Gutenberg, the famous inventor of the printing-press, did not start out printing the bible. The poor fellow only just got his new toy working! He wasn’t about to risk it printing something as ambitious as the BIBLE!
Instead, he tested his machine first, printing smaller, less-ambitious books, leaflets and other documents. The printing-press was finished by the 1440s. It wasn’t until at least a decade later that Johannes Gutenberg attempted something as ambitious as printing the Bible!
But printing such a famous book as the Bible proved to the doubters that printing-presses were the way of the future. The written word was out, the printed word was in! And every book which came thereafter, has been a child of that great moment in history.
Book: De Mirabilibus Mundi (“The Wonders of the World”). AKA: “The Travels of Marco Polo
Author: Rustichello da Pisa, Marco Polo
When Published: 1300
Where Published: The Republic of Venice (modern Venice, Italy).
De Mirabilibus Mundi. Copy as owned by Christopher Columbus; annotations in his own hand
In an age when travelling anywhere at all was extremely slow, dangerous and uncertain, legendary Italian explorer, Marco Polo, traveled to the far and distant Orient. While in prison, Marco Polo related his adventures to fellow prisoner and Italian, Rustichello Da Pisa (“Rustichello of Pisa”). Rustichello wrote down Marco’s tales, and when they returned to the city-state of Venice, they had the book published.
A printed copy of the book, owned by Christopher Columbus, was one of his driving forces which encouraged him to sail westwards across the Atlantic Ocean in search of Asia, but finding the Americas, instead.
Book: Inventarium sive Chirurgia Magna (“The Great Inventory of Surgery”)
Author: Guy De Chauliac
When Published: 1363
Where Published: Avignon, France.
Chirurgia Magna, by Guidonis De Cauliaco (Guy De Chauliac)
Guy De Chauliac, physician and surgeon to Pope Clement VI during the late 1340s, was the author of a great medical textbook which would become little less than the Surgical bible for the next three centuries.
In the 1340s, Europe was ravaged by the Great Plague. Countless thousands of people died each day, from as far afield as London to Rome to Constantinople.
At the time, the Catholic papacy was centered in the French city of Avignon (“Avinyon“), and Clement VI was the pope. Clement was one of the lucky survivors of the Black Death of the 1340s, possibly aided by his personal physician, Guy de Chauliac. De Chauliac advised the pope to remain in isolation, to see as few people as possible, and to have raging fires burning around him day and night, to cleanse the air and drive away pestilence.
Whether or not the fires helped, by following his doctor’s orders of quarantine, Clement survived the plague. De Chauliac was not so lucky. He was himself struck down by the disease. Without other physicians around to help, De Chauliac was forced to treat himself, and to lance his own buboes, the nasty, bloody boils which gave the “Black Death” its name. De Chauliac knew that the ‘pestilence‘ was contagious, and could be spread from person to person, or so it seemed, but like everyone else, he had no idea how it was spread, other than that it could be.
Ever the careful and methodical doctor, Guy de Chauliac wrote down everything that happened to him and everything that he did. He survived the plague, and afterwards wrote his great medical masterpiece, “Chirurgia Magna“, or “The Great Surgery”.
This enormous work, comprising seven volumes, covers everything, from bandaging, anatomy, drugs, anesthetics, bloodletting, and several diseases, symptoms and treatments – almost everything known, or unknown about medicine during the Middle Ages. It remained one of the preeminent works on medicine until the 1600s.
Book: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
Author: Henry Fielding
When Published: February, 1749
Where Published: London
By the 1700s, increasing literacy, and faster turnout of books thanks to the printing-press, allowed for more and more varied types of literature to be produced. Stories which were once impossible, were now possible! Forms which were once impossible, were now possible! Everything was changing.
Previously, stories, works of fiction and fancy, and suchlike, were of necessity, short. Without the ability to write stories down, most people kept stories short and swift. Fairy-tales and such. But even those people who wrote down their stories had to keep them short, since paper and ink was expensive, and copying out stories was even more expensive!
But with the printing-press, it was suddenly possible to crank out copy after copy of a document in relatively quick succession. This meant that even longer works of fiction could be shared with greater audiences. This gave rise to the modern “novel”.
Without the novel, most writers today would probably have starved to death long ago, or moved onto some other profession. And certainly, no novel such as “Tom Jones” would be possible without the printing-press!
Written by Henry Fielding in the 1740s, the book chronicles the childhood and life of the fictional “Tom Jones”, a boy who was found abandoned by a wealthy landowner. The book tells of his upbringing, and of his on-again-off-again romance with neighbour Sophia Western. Tom’s status as a foundling (and therefore, presumably, a bastard) causes all kinds of frictions and tensions throughout the story, as well as affecting Mr. Western’s willingness to let his daughter marry a man of questionable past.
Sounds straightforward enough. Except that the novel is EIGHTEEN BOOKS LONG!
Try copying THAT out by hand. You’d break your wrist before you got halfway.
The advent and spread of the printing-press was what made enormous works such as this possible for the first time in history. And as certainly one of the largest works of its kind, Tom Jones deserves a place on this list.
Book: Anatomy. Descriptive & Surgical
Author: Henry Gray
When Published: 1858
Where Published: England
Written in the 1850s, Henry Gray’s “Anatomy” is one of the most famous medical textbooks in the history of medical textbooks. If you mentioned De Chauliac’s “Chirurgia Magna“, most people would blink. But everyone has heard of “Gray’s Anatomy”.
Yes, most people know the term from the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy“, but it’s a lot more than a medical drama.
In the early 1800s, medical understanding is at a crossroads. People are shaking off the old beliefs and yearning to embrace a new, scientific study of medicine and the human body. But to treat the human body, you first need to understand the human body. And to do that, you need a body.
During the Georgian era, medical students learned about the human body from studying corpses provided by the state, or from body-snatchers. The demand for human bodies was so high that people were digging up freshly-buried corpses to sell them to anatomy schools…and anatomy schools asked no questions at all about where the bodies came from.
This was a serious problem for the British Government. It was a problem because stealing dead bodies is illegal! To try and fix this, in 1832, they passed the Anatomy Act. This allowed for a wider range of dead bodies to be available to the medical community. Previously, only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for dissection. Now, for the first time, you could chose to leave your own body to the medical community when you died!…Something which had not been allowed in the past, even if you put in your will!
Although this was a step forward, it wasn’t a very big one. Because bodies have this thing where they break down and rot and decompose. So they don’t last very long. Something better was required.
Photography in the 1830s and 40s was in its infancy. It was slow, unreliable and tricky. So having a photographic album of the human body was not a practical way of teaching students about their innards. What was needed was some cheap, effective textbook which would gather all the information about the human body into one neat package, along with some lovely, detailed and above all, accurate illustrations!
Enter Henry Gray.
Mr. Henry Gray was born in 1827. As a young, ambitious surgeon in his twenties, Gray studied anatomy in medical school. As a surgeon, having as best an understanding of the human body as possible was absolutely essential. And to ensure that all other budding surgeons had the best chance possible to study and perfect their profession, Gray wrote up an exhaustive text on the human body.
One of the most famous aspects of Gray’s “Anatomy” is not what he wrote, but rather, what was drawn. Gray had the good fortune to be acquainted with Henry Vandyke Carter, a fellow surgeon, but more importantly, an anatomical artist, or a person who drew scientific illustrations.
Together, Carter and Gray put together their masterpiece. With Gray providing the written matter, and Carter providing all the necessary illustrations of the various parts of the body, their book becomes a bestseller. As soon as they published their work in 1858, Gray and Carter started work on a second edition. It comes out in 1860, but Gray doesn’t live to see what a change his book makes the world of medicine. Three years after it’s first published, he dies of smallpox in 1861, at the age of just 34.
But his legacy lives on. And to this day, over a century after its publication, Gray’s “Anatomy” remains one of the most widely respected and widely-read medical textbooks in the world. It’s still published today, and comes in hardback, paperback, e-versions, even condensed copies for medical students. It’s latest run was in 2008, when the 40th edition was published.
Book: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Shelley
When Published: 1818
Where Published: London, England
The year is 1816. The famous “Year without Summer”, so-called due to the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Dutch East Indies the year before.
In a lodge on the shores of Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, the literary greats of the Regency Era are gathered. Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and a teenaged girl: Mary Godwin, with her first child.
The girl, introducing herself as Shelley’s wife (although they were not yet married), entered into a storytelling competition with the other authors. The challenge was for each writer to tell a horror story! Mary Shelley struggled. And thought. And struggled. Wracking her brains. But nothing came. And she had plenty of time to think – the weather was so bad (Shelley herself recalled, it rained almost nonstop) – that they didn’t leave the house for days! But then one night, she had a nightmare about a scientist who created life! And Mary Shelley’s horror story, “Frankenstein” had been born!
“Frankenstein” is widely considered one of the first proper science-fiction novels, influenced by the burgeoning desire of the Georgians to understand their world through rational, reasonable means. The subtitle of ‘the Modern Prometheus’ refers to the Greek titan who created mankind by molding him from clay, just as Dr. Frankenstein created life by reanimating dead bodies through electricity.
Book: A Dictionary of the English Language
Author: Dr. Samuel Johnson
When Published: 1755
Where Published: England
Imagine that you were writing an essay, or an article, or a story, or a report. And you needed to know how to spell a word, or needed to know its meaning, or its correct usage. You have been taught your letters and numbers and penmanship in school, but do not have any reference-texts to learn from; only what your schoolmaster might have taught you.
How would you find out if what you’d written was correct? Who would you ask? How would you know if the answer you received was correct? How would you know if it was incorrect?
Such was life before the dictionary.
With more people able to read and write, and with the spread of newspapers, books, novels, magazines, pamphlets and other reading-material in the 18th century, with the help of the printing-press, the English language was growing. But it was growing in a messy, erratic fashion. There existed no standards of spelling, punctuation, grammar or any other guidelines. If people were to become more literate, and if others were going to understand them, a standard form of written English was required. But this would not be possible without at least one, widely-accepted text, which compiled the entire language into one place, and which could serve as a reference for everyone.
Dictionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries were poor excuses for reference-material. They were often incomplete and poorly written. In the 1740s, a group of London booksellers got so frustrated by this, that they decided to do something about it! They contacted a man named. Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Samuel Johnson was a scholar. The son of a bookseller and from a well-to-do family, he seemed the perfect sort of fellow to do what these booksellers had in mind – a complete compendium of the English Language. They wanted every single known word in the English language to be entered into a dictionary, and for it to be published for the whole world to read.
Starting in the mid-1740s, Dr. Johnson boasted that it could be done in three years. It took him nine! But it was eventually published in 1755, and was, for the next 150 years (until the Oxford English Dictionary of 1884), the preeminent dictionary of the English language. It was considered the first complete book on the English language, and contained all the words known at the time.
So monumental was this feat, in an age before instant communications, online researching and several tomes of reference, that famous biographer James Boswell, a contemporary of Dr. Johnson’s, immortalised him in his volume “The Life of Samuel Johnson“.
Although the dictionary did have issues with it (as any text of the period was bound to have), it was, nonetheless widely received, and Johnson’s formatting and layout of his dictionary set a model for all other lexicographers to follow in the decades and centuries which came after. Lexicographer Simon Winchester, who produced the next most famous dictionary, the Oxford English, said of Johnson’s work, that it became the most important book in the homes of any person of letters, learning or intelligence, rivaling the bible in popularity and importance. By the time Dr. Johnson died in 1784 at the age of 75, there were already five editions printed, with more on the way!
Book: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or preservation of Favoured Races and the Struggle for Life
Author: Charles Darwin
When Published: 1859
Where Published: England
Got your tongue untied yet?
More commonly just called “The Origin of Species”, Charles Darwin’s most famous publication remains one of the most important books ever written on the subject of biology, and even after the passage of over a hundred years, it continues to shape and influence our understanding of the natural world.
Famously controversial, even today, Darwin’s theory of evolution showed how animals adapt and change to suit their environments, in order to survive, and how those species which do not change, or cannot change fast enough, are left behind, and eventually die out. This has become a cornerstone of modern science and natural history, and gave birth to the study of eugenics.
Author: Abraham Stoker
When Published: 1897
Where Published: United Kingdom
As far as world-changing books go, a classic of Gothic horror isn’t something that jumps to the top of most people’s lists, but this late-Victorian classic has remained popular for over a hundred years, and its significance in literature is difficult to ignore.
‘Dracula‘ is the source-material for much of popular culture’s understanding or beliefs regarding the abilities, skills and limitations of the mythical vampire. Everything from turning into bats, wooden stakes, drinking blood, and general immortality, comes from this book.
Inspired by Eastern European folk-tales, Dracula is a strange mix of the modern and the medieval, a Victorian equivalent of a Dan Brown novel. You have the ancient mysteries and folklore, and all the latest technology of the age, with which to combat evil – typewriters, steamships, railroads, telegrams, repeating firearms, audio-recordings, even blood-transfusions. Few other novels have so defined a particular genre or subgenre of fiction.