Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review: Books: A Living History

Books: A Living History
by Martyn Lyons
Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011

Martyn Lyons, educated at the University of Oxford and widely known as a leading historian of the book, offers a fascinating survey of the printed word in "Books: A Living History." He examines the history of the book, starting with the advent of writing itself in ancient civilizations, making his way through the middle ages, the creation of the printing press, the modern era, and the digital age. He defines books as all forms of written communication, "from cuneiform script to the printed codex to the digitized electronic book."

There are many wonderful tidbits of information tucked within these pages. One thing I learned was where the terms "upper case" and "lower case" come from - they refer to the storage case for manual type for printers. Capitals were in the upper section and ordinary letters were in the lower section. It is possible all of you reading this already knew that, but I found it fascinating. Having worked in graphic design, I also found his discussion of the development of fonts very interesting.

Lyons also examines the development of literature, and the increase in demand for "cheap fiction" in the 1900s. He also looks at the publishing industry - the role of bookstores and libraries, the royalty system and how the digital era is changing the publication of books. 

The photographs that accompany the text are very instructive in themselves. One could learn much simply by looking at them and reading the associated captions.

"Books: A Living History" is an enjoyable book for anyone interested in history or the printed word.


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