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The Page-Turning History of Books, Libraries, and Reading

So, where did it all start?

In the 7th Century BCE, a collection of clay tablets with information etched into them was kept by Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal at the height of his empire in modern-day Iraq.

Centuries after the invention of writing, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato amassed extensive collections of written works on various subjects, earning them the reputation of having personal libraries. It is even suggested that Aristotle taught the Egyptian kings how to organize their own collections of books.

From there, the dream of all dreams for book lovers (indeed, for information lovers!) was created with the opening of the Library of Alexandria – a library whose importance and size cannot be downplayed in the history of humanity and knowledge.

Once this gargantuan collection of scripts opened, it started a snowball effect across the world in bookkeeping and bookselling. In fact, there is a famous phrase that perfectly reflects the worldwide effect of books and reading in ancient times:

Books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut, and read in Baghdad”.

It is thought that the first work of fiction was by an 11th-Century Japanese woman – an epic novel about life and romance by Murasaki Shikibu: 源氏物語 (The Tale of Genji).

With the demand for information, stories, and religious texts growing all the time, something had to be done to speed up the then hand-printing process of distributing books.

The earliest known printing press was invented in China, with the first known printed book being Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (The Diamond Sutra) printed during the Tang Dynasty around 868 AD.

It wasn’t until 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg created a modernized version that printing in the West took off and it hasn’t slowed down ever since!

Across history, access to reading – in fact, access to learning to read at all – was limited to those in the elite of society; in many ways, reading has (and still continues to be in some areas of the world) been an act of rebellion.

If you want to go down this rabbit hole of reading and books, I suggest A History of Reading to you. No other author has best documented the evolution of books and reading than Alberto Manguel.

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