Although book historian Martyn Lyons has already published a half-dozen titles about books and reading, he still uncovered surprises about the subject while researching his forthcoming Books: A Living History, an illustrated overview of books in every form as well as the growth of the publishing industry. “We tend to think Gutenberg changed everything, but it wasn’t the case,” said Lyons from his home in Australia. “I was very surprised to find monks in the 15th century hand-copying printed texts. And for centuries after print, manuscript was used to distribute newsletters or poetry. There were good reasons for this choice of medium: if the author only had a small, select readership and also wanted to evade censorship, scribal texts were the logical answer.”
Books provides extensive information about the technology, both ancient and contemporary, of books, but Lyons’s text also emphasizes the book’s role in society throughout history and in today’s changing world. “I am always shocked when I go into a house which doesn’t have books in it. Something feels missing,” said Lyons. “A friend who was trying to sell her apartment asked the real estate agent for advice about how best to present the apartment to impress potential buyers. The first thing he told her was to get rid of all the books, because ‘nobody wants to see all that stuff.’ Am I the only one who gets upset about this new illiteracy?”
Lyons has about 2,000 books in his personal collection, most of them connected to his work as a professor in the school of history and philosophy at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Lyons shies away from rare and exotic books. “I have a very functional attitude toward books, and never buy one unless I intend to read it,” he said. Apart from the history genre, Lyons’s collection includes cookbooks, crime novels, and dictionaries. “I have piles of 19th-century novels in paperback. I also like books about books—fiction in which books play a significant role. Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is the funniest book I’ve read in ages.”
Books’s publisher Getty Publications acquired the book from the U.K.’s Thames & Hudson, with whom the company has collaborated in the past. Although Books brings readers up to date to the current age of virtual publishing and electronic reading devices, Lyons himself is waiting for “a well-meaning relative” to buy a device for him. “Then I will have to face up to the real world,” he said. “I read e-books on my desktop at work, but it is an excruciatingly slow process. Obviously, some platforms are more user-friendly than others.” Lyons prefers paper books for browsing, cross-referencing different parts of a text, or writing in them, but does acknowledge that the digitization process has made a big difference to reading possibilities in general. “My only worry,” he said, “is that we are so dependent on one, monolithic gateway—Google—and I think that kind of dependence is potentially a risk.”
Lyons’s book discusses the rise of dime novels, mass market paperbacks, romance novels, Japanese manga, illustrated books, and children’s books. Getty featured the title at BookExpo America and it will be a centerpiece of its regional fall show displays. Books is set for November release, with a 7,500-copy first printing.
Given the newest evolution of the format, does Lyons think traditional paper books can survive? “They’re not going to disappear,” he predicted. “When you think of paper copies and e-books, it’s not a question of one or the other—each has its role and I think we’re currently still in the process of exploring what those roles ought to be.” Lyons has a similar instinct about indie bookstores, five of which are within walking distance of his home in central Sydney. “I don’t think they are about to vanish,” he said. “The small local bookshop can survive by supplying a market niche, including secondhand books, children’s books, and [regional] titles.”