The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time

Keith Houston. Norton, $29.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-393-24479-3
Houston (Shady Characters) reminds readers of the joy of reading print in this history of the book, lovingly crafted and embellished with arcane anecdotes. Chapters are arranged by the parts of a book: page, ink, pen, type, illustrations, and the binding that brings it all together. Houston begins with the creation of writing, moving to the search for something to write on. He explores papyrus, parchment, and paper in their many forms, along with the need to find inks that suit each one. Houston challenges popular misconceptions—“if Gutenberg is to be credited with anything it must be that he made [the printing press] work”—and offers anecdotes of particularly thrilling moments in the book’s development, such as the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, where the earliest complete codices known were found. Houston appreciates words, too. He derives the origin of the word syllabus, for instance, and explains the differences between illuminated and illustrated manuscripts. Technical discussions of the printing press, lithography, and binding are enlivened by stories of their creators’ missteps. Houston’s fixation with this object is a delight, and his understanding of how history is written and his clear delineation between speculation and established fact are very refreshing. Agent: Laurie Abkemeier, DeFiore & Company. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/20/2016
Release date: 08/23/2016
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