Reading and the Earliest Books

Category: Reading Education

Just over 200 years ago, only about fifty books comprised a well-stocked personal library.

Today, worldwide, more than one thousand books are published every day of the year. Newspapers, magazines, photocopiers and computer monitors have increased available information to a staggering amount.

We read more text in a month, probably, than most of our great-grandparents read in a lifetime.

Obviously, the rate information comes in through the eye and is processed by the brain must be increased to deal with such an incredible amount of reading.

Writing began centuries ago, but the origin of books is uncertain. That's because the books themselves have not survived. The oldest surviving examples of writing are on clay or stone. But the more fragile materials used for writing at various times have generally perished.

The earliest known books are the clay tablets of Mesopotamia and the papyrus rolls of Egypt, examples of both dating from the early 3rd century BC. The papyrus roll of ancient Egypt, a writing material that resembles paper, is more nearly the direct ancestor of the modern book than is the clay tablet. The papyrus roll was derived from a reedy plant of the same name flourishing in the Nile Valley.

Papyrus sheets varied in size, though generally measuring five to six inches wide, pasted together to make a long roll. To make a book, a scribe would copy a text on one side of the sheets. The finished product was rolled up with the text inside.

The Chinese began producing books as early as 1300 BC, although there are few surviving examples. These primitive books were made of wood or bamboo strips, bound together with cords. Many of these books were burned in 213 BC by the Ch'n emperor Shihn Huang-ti, who feared their power. The fragility of materials and the damp climate in China resulted in the loss of other ancient copies. However, some books survived and more were produced in later years, enough for a Chinese national bibliography of 677 books (on tablets and silk) to appear in the 1st century BC.

To demonstrate differences in cost, the famous Twenty Volumes of Aristotle, bound in black and red, which the clerk in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales possessed, would cost the equivalent of forty to fifty thousand dollars in today's money. That's because each letter in each copy had to be copied by hand.

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