10 Important People in the History of the Book

close-up view of a weathered leather book

Modern readers treasure the physical object known as “the book,” a steadfast constant in a rapidly changing world. But a long view of literary history reveals a dynamic creature: From tablet to scroll to ancient codex, from leather-bound luxury item to mass-produced paperback to digital tablet, the book has evolved over millennia. But how did this epic transformation occur? And who can we thank for it? Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Bas Bleu’s editors are tipping our hats to 10 (of many!) important people in the history of the book.

Enheduanna, the world’s first author known by name: The Sumerians of Mesopotamia (roughly modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, eastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey) deserve credit for creating the first written language, cuneiform, circa 3,000 BCE. And it was Enheduanna, a high priestess in the ancient city of Ur, whose original poems and hymns were carved into tablets, earning her the distinction of being the world’s first recorded author.

Ts’ai Lun, the inventor of paper: Paper likely already existed around 105 CE, before the Chinese emperor “officially” commended court official Ts’ai Lun for inventing it. In China, silk was the most common writing surface, but it was expensive and not easy to come by. (The Ancient Egyptians made papyrus from reed marrow, and parchment was made from animal skin.) Ts’ai Lun created sheets of paper from the macerated bark of trees and bushes, with a few old rags and fishnets (the aquatic kind, not the lingerie kind!) thrown in for good measure. The resulting paper was much less expensive and much easier to produce than silk, helping it gain popularity quickly throughout China.

Murasaki Shikibu, author of the first novel: The Tale of Genji, written in early eleventh-century Japan during the Heian Period, is widely considered to be the world’s first novel. The story revolves around Genji, the son of an emperor and his concubine, and his life in aristocratic Japanese society. Its author? A low-ranking Japanese noblewoman whose literary skills earned her a job as a lady-in-waiting…and a front-row seat to the politics and dramas of court life. We don’t know her real name: Murasaki Shikibu is a pseudonym, albeit one chosen by scholars rather than by the author herself. “Murasaki” is the name of one of The Tale of Genji’s main characters, while “Shikibu” refers to her father’s political position. She likely began the novel around 1000 CE, then expanded it during her time at court. She was not Japan’s first female writer, but her focus on a single fictional character over the course of fifty-four chapters, as well as the advanced narrative and poetic skills gleaned in part from her childhood education alongside her brother (unusual for the time), helped to create the model for the novels we read and love today.

Johannes Gutenberg, Western inventor of movable type: Perhaps the most recognizable name on this list, Gutenberg is widely credited with launching the age of the printed book…at least in the Western world. Printed books existed before Gutenberg, but required carving each page onto a single block, a labor-intensive process. Gutenberg—a German blacksmith and bookmaker—made printing more practical by crafting small, metal, single character type (or blocks) that could be produced quickly. China’s Bi Sheng actually invented movable type printing around 1040 CE, well before Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century “invention,” but Gutenberg earns credit for refining the process and transitioning books from unique, hand-crafted items to identical, mass-produced products. The first book (officially) printed using Gutenberg’s method was a 42-line Bible, with 42 lines printed on each page. Gutenberg printed 180 copies in the 1450s, with forty-nine “Gutenberg Bibles” presently accounted for. Today, they are among the world’s most valuable books.

Charles Barbier and Louis Braille, inventors of braille touch reading: Though it earned its named from Louis Braille, this revolutionary method for sightless reading was based on Charles Barbier’s “night-writing.” A veteran of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, Barbier created a system of raised dots that allowed soldiers to read combat messages in the dark…likely saving lives by eliminating the need for lamplight when within firing range of enemy soldiers. Several years later, around 1820, eleven-year-old Louis Braille—blinded in a childhood accident—was inspired by Barbier’s system to create a written communication system for the blind. It took almost a decade to develop, but nearly two centuries later, braille has given literacy to countless readers.

The American Foundation for the Blind, inventor of audiobooks: Technically, an organization is not a person. But we can’t possibly leave audiobooks off this list! In 1932, the American Foundation for the Blind began creating recordings of books on vinyl records, followed soon after by the Library of Congress. Originally created as a literacy method for the blind, today audiobooks are essential tools for readers with myriad visual impairments, as well as for “overbooked” bibliophiles trying to squeeze in a few chapters during their daily commutes!

Allen Lane, inventor of the paperback book: We can’t vouch for the accuracy of this story, but we love that Agatha Christie has a supporting role! Allegedly, in 1935, British publisher Allen Lane was returning home from a weekend visit with the crime novelist when he was delayed at the train station. Searching for reading material to pass the time, Lane had a “eureka!” moment: Create cheap versions of quality books to sell at train stations and the like. Lane created a new imprint called Penguin Books to publish the “paperback” books, pricing them about the same as a pack of cigarettes. His gamble paid off: In the first year, Penguin sold more than three million copies of its initial ten titles…including a paperback version of Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Robert Carlton Brown and Michael S. Hart, inventors of the e-book: According to the New York Times, the idea for the e-book was hatched in 1930, when writer Bob Brown penned The Readies, a manifesto in which he proposed “A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in 10 minutes if I want to.” But it wasn’t until 1971, when Michael Hart digitized the Declaration of Independence and founded Project Gutenberg, that the modern e-book was born.

Who have we left off our list? Tell us in the comments below!

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12 thoughts on “10 Important People in the History of the Book

  1. Please don’t forget the monks and other religious who during the Middles Ages painstakingly copied Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, and other books and preserved them for posterity.

  2. “Paper likely already existed around 105 CDE”.
    I don’t know what CDE is. Do you mean to say BCE, before the common era?

  3. You might want to include what is called the first English novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson, 1740, that popularized conduct literature about marriage. Also, you might mention serial or installment novels such as Penwick Papers by Charles Dickens in 1836, as did Louisa May Alcott later in the 1800’s. Alcott wrote suspenseful installment novels in newspapers in Boston under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard.

  4. Let’s give some credit to the people who made books a popular purchase, such as the people who produced the King James version of the Bible, Noah Webster, and the people who put out compendia of the Shakespeare plays.

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