A Brief History of Books: More than 6000 Years

Books are said to be our best friend. Ever wondered why? Because books tell us about our history. But what is the history of books? When and how books and reading became a part of human life? How books became what they are now?

In this era of technology being delivered to doorsteps; rather fingertips, the history of books and the written word is almost ignored. In fact, very few of us would know anything about the history of books nor the answers of the questions I asked at the very beginning.

So, Today we are going to answer these questions by explaining a brief history of books and the evolution of reading books.


Early 4000 BC : Invention of Writing

The History of Books starts with the invention of writing. Since the beginning of mankind, spoken language was the primary mode of expression and communication. But when it came to preserving those important communications, humans invented the primitive form of writing and reading.

More than 6000 years ago, the earliest mode of writing came into existence in form pictograph. The earliest writing system was developed in Sumer, Mesopotamia which was known as Sumerian cuneiform. It included abstract and characteristic wedge shapes formed by a blunt reed stylus on clay tablets. This, in fact, marked the very first milestones in the history of books.

Brief History of Books
Sumerian Cuneiform – The Earliest Writing System


About 2400 BC :  First Evidence of Books

In Ancient Egypt, the king of Fifth Dynasty is said to have books written on Papyrus (an organic matter from the stem of trees) and were in form of scrolls. These Papyrus scrolls are found in various excavations in Egypt which dates back to 2400 BC. These scrolls are said to be as long as 10 meters. The Papyrus scrolls are said to be the second major development in the history of books. There was a mix of symbols, shapes and drawings in these ancient books.

Brief History of Books
Papyrus Scroll from Ancient Egypt


1st Century AD : Invention of Paper in China

The books that we read today could not have been possible without the invention of paper. In 1st Century AD, Paper was invented in China and the printing was carried out by wood blocks. Also, during this period, the continuous scrolls were replaced by folded concertina style books bound at one edge. The oldest woodblock printed book which can be roughly called Diamond Sutra dates back to 868.

Brief History of Books
Ancient Chinese Book from 1st Century AD


3rd – 8th Century AD :  Books in form of Codex

During the period of 500 years, from 3rd to 8th century, the books essentially took the form of stacked sheet of paper bound at the back and covered on both sides. Also, the indices, punctuations and letters made reading a book easy and understandable during this period.

Brief History of Books
A semi-burnt 3rd century codex

This era also marked the destruction of ancient books of various religion at different places in the world. The most popular incident of destruction in the history of books is the burning of Library of Alexandria in the 3rd century. Other such incidents include destroying of manuscripts in monasteries.


1000 AD – 1500 AD : First novel & Invention of Printing Press

Almost half down the history of books came the major breakthrough. The first novel of the world, The Tale of Genji, was written by Lady Murasaki in 1010 AD. It is the first novel with a protagonist and other minor characters and written in chapter format.

Brief History of Books
The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki (1935 edition)

Another important discovery in the history of books was the invention of Printing Press by Johannes Guttenberg in around 1440. This enabled the mass printed of books. The first mass printed book by Guttenberg was Holy Bible. Soon, different typefaces were introduced in printed books. Roman Typeface was first used in 1467. Also, Books were also collected in private libraries, which became more common in the 14th and 15th centuries.


16th – 18th Century : Expansion of Books & Libraries

During the period of 300 years between 16th and 18th century, books expanded to different continents and languages. Books were being translated and printed in various languages making cultures and people around the world understand each other better. It also became one of the reasons that led to the Enlightenment movement.

Brief History of Books
Old books ar Clementinum National Library

Also, different libraries and societies came into existence such American Bible Society (1816). Many of those beautiful libraries are still existing and functional. A number of books were also banned because of various reasons.  Technological developments in the history of books also emerged in this era with the invention of mechanical typewriters and the introduction of steam printing presses.


19th – 20th Century : Commercialisation of Books

With more and more advancements and the introduction of computers & laser printer,  books became a commodity. The number of authors and publishing houses multiplied rapidly. The first mass market paperback editions were published during the era.

This was also the era of Nazis and they had a destroying impact on the history of books. ‘Book Burning’ was carried out by Nazis in early 20th century. In 1971, Project Gutenberg was launched which aimed to put all the public domain books online as downloadable files. During the end of 20th century, Amazon started selling books online in 1995 pushing the commercialisation of books to another level.


21st Century to Present :  Ebooks and Future of Books

Dawn of 21st century started with first ever global effort in the history of books to digitize books. In 2004, Google aimed to scan 129,864,880 books published in all the modern history. Three years later, Amazon launched Kindle e-readers in 2007.  Although there is a lack of consensus on the inventor of the ebook, but it is said that the first electronic book was published allegedly in 2005.

Brief History of Books
Amazon Kindle Ebook Reader

Soon, self-publishing became the trend. There are many pros and cons of self-publishing but more authors are getting attracted to it rather than traditional publishing. Readers are always divided on the use of ebooks and paper books.


This was the brief history of books and no doubt books have a great future too. Books have traveled a journey of more than 6000 years and we all know that


Books are here to continue…




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