The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book

James Raven, editor

Oxford University Press



Cultural conservatives of the late eighteenth century imagined a wide range of contemporary ills  that they blamed on the malign influence of untutored reading: a wave of suicides, set off by the reading of Werther and the writings of the philosophes; an epidemic of masturbation, spread through the solitary reading of erotic literature … and, most ominously, a growing incapacity of women afflicted with ‘reading addiction’ to distinguish adequately between fact and fiction and to attend responsibly to their daily chores.

     from The Oxford Illustrated History 
                of the Book


A gift for the true bibliophile

A bibliophile is not just someone who loves books. A bibliophile is someone who, given the choice between surrendering one’s library and surrendering one’s spouse, needs time to consider. The Renaissance humanist Erasmus wrote, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” Erasmus was a bibliophile.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book is made for the true bibliophile, a breathtaking survey of how humankind has attempted to record and remember itself through the millennia, from clay tablets to digital tablets.

The articles are academic (It is Oxford University Press, after all) and some sections are very technical and detailed and assume a good grasp of world history. If you aren’t familiar with Ashurbanipal or the Song Dynasty [960-1279 CE], this may not be for you. But it is also eminently skim-able if, for example, you don’t want to know how the ancients made papyrus scrolls from the papyrus plant.

There are fascinating facts to expand our knowledge and appreciation of the writing experiment: Writing developed independently at least four different areas in the world, in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and pre-conquest Mesoamerica. Likewise, paper was invented at least three different times in separate parts of the globe. The oldest surviving paper book is a copy of a Buddhist sutra from 256 CE (one of many beautiful photographs in this lavishly illustrated edition.) Books in the Western tradition have the familiar rectangular style because parchment came from animal hides that are longer than wide (literally, “the flesh made Word.”) Gutenberg invented printing with moveable type in 1452. But the Koreans were already printing with moveable type by 1234.

There is a helpful glossary if you’ve momentarily forgotten what xylography is (woodblock printing,) and a succinct timeline stretching from 3500 BCE (when the earliest script-symbols were found in the Indus Valley, on clay tablets in Mesopotamia and on Egyptian papyrus rolls) to the modern era (Twitter increasing the Tweet limit to 280 characters.)

Separate chapters on books in the ancient world, as well as in the Islamic world, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and south Asian cultures help expand our provincial Western understanding, and together form a testament to how books have served “to transport community memory through time and space and have done so reasonably effectively in a multiplicity of physical forms for over 5,000 years.”

This is a worthy addition to one’s library, in place of one’s spouse.



This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (November 25, 2020.) Reprinted with permission.