100 books

This is a modified version of a review to appear in Journal of Documentation.

Histories of things in 100 other things seem to be all the rage these days. The British Museum started it, with its History of the world in 100 objects. John Julius Norwich extended the idea to a history of England in 100 places, the Imperial War Museum got in on the act looking at the First World War in 100 objects. We’ve had the history of life in 100 fossils from the Natural History Museum, the history of the 20th century in 100 maps (another from the British Library), of London in 100 places; and the list goes on.
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One of the latest, and certainly one of the best, example is the splendid History of the book in 100 books, by Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad, published by Quarto on behalf of the British Library. Ranging of cave paintings to manga and e-books, this gives a comprehensive survey of books of all kinds. Although a significant proportion of the 100 exemplars are the manuscripts and printed volumes which we might expect from the title, the authors commendably broaden out the scope of the work in three ways. They avoid a overly western focus, by including material from around the world. They take a broad understanding of ‘book’, including carved bones, Incas khipus, Indian palm leaves, text reels, and ‘antibooks’. And they include clear accounts of the, sometimes overlooked, techniques of book production throughout history, rather than simply focusing on the results in terms of their 100 exemplars

Somehow the subject of books seems to bring out the best in writers who seek both to provide authoritative scholarly information and also to produce an attractive and readable book in itself. The authors have succeeded admirably here, with a good choice of topics, clear and detailed text and excellent illustrations. Like David Pearson’s Books as History, also published by the British Library, this is a book which is equally suitable as a text for serious study, and also a high-class coffee-table book.

This book brings the message that the processes and products of documentation are not only important and valuable but may also be cultural, and beautiful, artifacts in their own right. Those of us at the academic end of the information and documentation disciplines sometimes, I think, forget this, and this splendid book is a timely reminder.

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