“Find the biggest, grandest hardback you can,” advises the author in the introduction. “Hold it in your hands. Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue.” Exactly. Exactly. If you love books you will love this book, and not only because it is beautifully and almost reverentially put together, standing physically for the argument it makes. Books are not like anything else in human history. They have filled houses of worship and toppled empires. But we rarely pause to think about where they came from.
There are other fine volumes in recent years about the history of the book, including outstanding contributions by veteran bibliophiles Robert Darnton and Nicholas Basbanes. But Houston’s wonderful history of the science of the book is irresistible. We all know that Gutenberg and his contemporaries printed with movable type, but how did they make the molds for the letters? Houston investigates. I particularly loved the bit about the debate -- yes, the debate -- about how papyrus books were made and why they survived the ages. He is also fascinating in tracking the mystery behind the St Cuthbert’s Bible, the oldest surviving bound book.