If you’re shopping for the bibliophile on your list this holiday season (or you are said bibliophile), look no further! The Book by Design: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Greatest Invention (2023, University of Chicago Press) is an ambitious compendium that seeks to catalog and analyze the history of the book in myriad forms — from illuminated manuscripts to the illuminated screen of your Kindle; from scrolls to scrolling.
Along the way, the book explores standouts from the British Library’s collection of historic manuscripts dating back to the 7th century and spanning millennia of international human effort and innovation in book form. Edited by P.J.M. Marks, curator of bookbindings at the British Library, and Stephen Parkin, curator of the library’s printed heritage collections spanning 1450 to 1600, each chapter by an individual author is dedicated to an important or iconic work in the history of bookmaking.
Beginning with the Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 700 CE), covered by the British Library’s very own Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts Eleanor Jackson, and down to a feature on “Penguin Books and the Paperback Revolution” by Ancient and Medieval political specialist Philip Parker, The Book by Design is a real page-turner for people interested in how we came to turn pages. Among the 21 chapters and additional feature essays, readers can explore a wealth of literary achievements and approaches, including the development of paper, the 14th-century Golden Haggadah, the woodcut illustrations of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Shakespeare’s first folio of 1623, a modern Mesoamerican codex, a material examination of Oceanic book design, a spotlight on John Audubon’s Birds of America (1827–1838), miniature books, and much, much more.
The publication arrives as the British Library experiences a major technology outage as a result of a wide-ranging cyber-attack earlier this month, rendering many of its archives and resources temporarily inaccessible to researchers.
While we understand generally that books have been a part of human society for a long time, this collection of historical manuscripts highlights the incredible effort and resources people around the world have dedicated to setting down some of the human experience in bound-and-printed form. If you’re curious about 19th-century techniques for American publisher binding, hoping for a deep-dive on typeface development, or want to learn about the art of the palm-leaf book and its relationship with the last birth tale of Buddha, this is the read for you. Book by Design seeks to close the book on book-related inquiry.