It took more than one writer's imagination to produce that novel that's standing on your bookshelf. Before there could be a book, someone had to invent the paper it was printed on. Someone had to invent a way to put that print on the page. Someone had to figure out how to make copies of those words. Somewhere along the line, someone had to come up with the idea of a novel. Throughout the history of literature, between the time paper was created and word processing was invented, there have been hundreds of spectacular innovations that have affected writing and reading. Before Murasaki Shikibu, there was no such thing as a novel. Before Jan Amos Comenius, there was no such thing as a children's book. Before Charles Dickens, no one had heard of a literary tour. Before Aldus Manutius, there was no such thing as a paperback book, and before Sir Allen Lane, there was really no place you could buy one.
Before Harriet Beecher Stowe, no one had heard of a book besides the Bible selling a million copies. These are the people--some obscure, some not so obscure--who have affected the course of human history by changing the way we read and write.
THE MAN WHO MADE PAPER
Stone tablets had become a drag. And silk sheets were better for sleeping in than writing on. Enter T'sai Lun, the second-century eunuch who revolutionized the way we read by introducing paper to the Chinese court circa 105 A.D. Lun, a court official, was later promoted by Emperor Ho-Ti for his concoction of boiled-and-pressed tree bark, hemp, rags and fishnet. While some dispute whether Lun was the first to make paper, he was certainly the smartest: He got it in writing. Since then, every world-class writer has gotten between the sheets. After all, said William Faulkner, paper was one of only four things needed in his trade--the other three being "tobacco, food and a little whiskey."
Just Your Type
INVENTOR OF MOVABLE TYPE
Before the middle of the fifteenth century, books were not really salable commodities; they were works of art that took months of excruciating labor to reproduce by hand. Gutenberg changed all that in 1450 when he invented movable type. Instead of writing each line by hand, or carving an entire page out of wood and reproducing it, printers could now make precise metal letters that could be moved around in any combination and allow the cheap mass production of books. Born around 1400, Gutenberg moved to Strasbourg, France, as a young man to work as a craftsman. He returned to Mainz, Germany, in 1450, where he set up his printing shop and printed the Bible associated with his name. "The big difference was that before [Gutenberg], people traveled to the book; now books could travel with you," says Johanna Drucker, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. "For the masses," says Michael Hart, founder of the Project Gutenberg Web site, "it's [as important as the invention of] the wheel, language, writing or the plow."
MURASAKI SHIKIBU AND MIGUEL DE CERVANTES
AUTHORS OF THE WORLD'S FIRST NOVELS
As with gunpowder and noodles, Asia got to the novel first. In eleventh-century Japan, Shikibu, a thirty-three-year-old widow and mother, became an attendant to Empress Akiko, who had heard the tales of the era so often that she had become bored beyond reason and asked for fresh entertainment. Shikibu soon got to work, and after fifty-four chapters of mini sagas, she had written The Tale of Genji. Newly translated by Royall Tyler, Shikibu's novel concerns the title character--a favorite member of the emperor's court--and his several wives and mistresses. Shikibu follows Genji and observes such seemingly modern literary topics as the underbelly of marriage and courtship, sexual jealousy and family dysfunction. "In the end," says Tyler of the novel that many consider to be the world's first, "one feels as though one has looked through a small but very clear window into a spacious world. …