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Original photo by BARBARA LOPEZ/ Shutterstock
8 Mind-Expanding Facts About Books
Read Time: 5m
Article image
Original photo by BARBARA LOPEZ/ Shutterstock

For the last 5,000 years or so, the vast majority of human knowledge has been passed down through writing, from clay tablets to papyrus scrolls to today’s e-readers. Here are eight fascinating facts about books that you may not have learned at the library. They prove that reading really is fundamental.

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The Sumerians Started It All

Carved wood standard of Ur and Sumerian civilization.
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The first known example of writing developed around 3500 BCE in the Persian Gulf region of Mesopotamia (now south-central Iraq). The Sumerian civilization there used pointed reeds to inscribe characters onto clay tablets, a form of writing now known as cuneiform. The Gilgamesh tablet, thought to be the oldest surviving work of human literature, was created by the Sumerians; it was looted during the first Gulf War, but is now back in Baghdad.

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The Egyptians Came After  

View of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Credit: Leemage/ Corbis Historical via Getty Images

The earliest pharaonic civilization of ancient Egypt developed its own system of writing a few hundred years after the Sumerians, around 3100 BCE. Hieroglyphics (meaning “sacred carvings” in ancient Greek) combined pictographs with symbols designating sound and syllables to celebrate the lives of the gods and the deeds of Egyptian royalty, who were worshiped as gods themselves. Hieroglyphic writing was indecipherable for 1,500 years, until French scholar Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone (which included hieroglyphs side by side with ancient Greek) in 1822.

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The Codex Conquers the Scroll

The codex text on a scroll.
Credit: Vladimir Zapletin/ iStock

Papyrus reeds grew plentifully (and almost exclusively) along the Nile, and the enormously profitable art of papermaking was a closely guarded Egyptian secret for centuries. Soon the preferred writing material for Egyptians spread throughout the Mediterranean. It was the Romans who popularized the switch from papyrus scrolls (which could exceed 100 feet in length and required two hands) to the codex, where sheets of papyrus or parchment were stacked and bound between two wooden covers.

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Asia Printed Long Before Gutenberg

Buddhist text called the Diamond Sutra.
Credit: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While scribes and illuminators in European monasteries were laboriously copying and decorating manuscripts by hand, the Chinese were making books via the art of woodblock printing, which was developed during the Tang Dynasty, around 700 CE. Japan’s Empress Shōtoku commissioned the Hyakumanto Darani (“The One Million Pagodas and Dharani Prayers”) in 764 CE. A Buddhist text called the Diamond Sutra is the earliest example of a dated, printed book (not scroll) and was printed in 868 CE. Woodblock printing was laborious, as each page was carved by hand.

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Gutenberg Sped Things Up

Johannes Gutenberg in his workshop.
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Movable metal type wasn’t his invention, but Johannes Gutenberg’s improvements around 1448 commercialized the process of printing, bringing books within the reach of common people. (Prior to this, books were almost solely possessions of the very wealthy or the church.) The German goldsmith printed 180 copies of the Bible, and sparked a revolution. The popularization of the printing press made books much cheaper to produce, allowing ideas (like the Protestant Reformation) to spread quickly.

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The Bible May Be the Bestselling Book of All Time

Pages flipping through a bible.

Fewer than 50 editions of the Bible Gutenberg printed are still in existence, and only 16 of those are complete copies. If you found one in the attic today, it would probably fetch at least $35 million. And even non-Gutenberg Bibles are big business: The Christian Bible is said to be the bestselling book of all time, with at least 5 billion copies having been printed. The Book of Mormon and Quotations From Chairman Mao Zedong are up there as well, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote tops the fiction chart, with more than 500 million copies sold since it was written in 1605.

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But the Bible Is Not the Most Expensive Book

View of the oldest surviving Hebrew Bible or Tanakh.

The oldest extant copy of the Hebrew Bible, the Codex Sassoon (created some time between 880 and 960 CE), sold at auction in 2023 for $38 million, making it the most expensive Jewish manuscript in the world. But it’s a science book, not a religious text, that currently holds the title of most expensive book in the world. In 1994, Microsoft founder Bill Gates paid more than $30 million for the Codex Leicester, the handwritten and illustrated notebook of Renaissance legend Leonardo da Vinci. In today’s dollars, that makes the codex worth around $60 million. (But you can buy a copy today for $35.) Meanwhile, a rare first printing of the U.S. Constitution sold for $43 million in 2021,  but you can read a copy here absolutely free.

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Great Books Make Great Movies

Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Homes movie.
Credit: Album/ Alamy Stock Photo

Harry Potter was far from the first: Moviemakers have been adapting books to the screen since the beginning of the motion picture industry. In 2012, Guinness World Records crowned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as “the most-portrayed literary human character in film and TV,” with 254 on-screen depictions. Dracula (not a human) is the most-portrayed character overall, with 272 film adaptations and counting. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, meanwhile, has been adapted at least 80 times. Jane Austen’s novels could sustain their own motion picture studio, and Stephen King might as well pass on the printing and skip straight to the screenplays, since his books are almost immediately adapted to the big screen.