Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A history of the book

By Michael Suarez and Henry Woudhuysen


And Yet The Books
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.


‘And yet the books’ by Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz (1986) brilliantly captures the relationship ‎between the book as a universal, world-wide object, a thing that exists by the millions and yet is so ‎individual, and the single, solitary writer or reader. How can such a ubiquitous, material phenomenon ‎be at the same time so personal and so transcendent?

Histories of the book have ‎often concentrated on one aspect. Most have been accounts, for example, of medieval ‎manuscripts or of printing in the West or have taken the form of national histories of the book in, say, ‎France, the US, India, or China. More detailed studies look at one or two means of production and ‎publication, at a particular period, or a local phenomenon. However valuable these studies are (and ‎astonishing work has been done on books during the last century), they deny the universality of books, ‎the very feature that makes them such important and internationally significant objects. How could a history of books be taken seriously without thinking about the recent enormous growth in ‎South American publishing, or the way in which book production in India has developed? To say ‎nothing about the book in China and Japan; that would be to miss some of the most striking and visually ‎attractive illustrated books and bindings of the last few centuries that have been enormously ‎influential throughout the world.

Drilled books, Mar. 27, 1913. Source: NYPL.

And not just the book itself as a material object – Mislosz’s “shining chestnuts” – but as an immaterial ‎object. We should seek to cover the development of writing, the oral teachings of the world’s great ‎religious and philosophical leaders, the metaphysical or platonic identity of texts, and the electronic book. We should explore ‎the history of book production from writing on stone, bark, and papyrus or in clay, to the development ‎of the paperback. We should examine the manufacture of vellum and paper, the illustration and binding of books, their ‎storage, and all those who have collected them privately and in institutions. We should analyse the history of printing and publishing, ‎the development of editorial theory, and practice by great scholars. And let us not forget the murkier world of ‎forgery, theft, and deception.‎ We should undertake to cover all this not just in areas with which we are mildly familiar (the UK, the US, and parts of Europe), but for the whole world (polar libraries as well as sub-Saharan Africa), and in all times (the books before and after the invention of the codex).

To encapsulate the world and the book in the million words is a vaulted ambition.

Michael F. Suarez, SJ is Director of Rare Book School, Professor of English, University Professor, and Honorary Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia. H.R. Woudhuysen is Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and a Professor of English at University College London. Together they are the authors of The Oxford Companion to the Book.

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