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The Smithsonian Book of Books Hardcover – September 17, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This copiously illustrated celebration of books and the printed word crams a wealth of information into 320 pages studded with 311 color plates. With infectious enthusiasm and an easy conversational flow, Olmert, who teaches Shakespeare at the University of Maryland, traces the history and influence of books from ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls through Chinese movable type to the modern book fair. Sections cover a great diversity of topics: the origins of writing, medieval ledger books, the Gutenberg revolution, the Bible, Islamic books, Shakespeare's relationship to printing, Mother Goose and children's books, William Morris, the first great dictionaries and encyclopedias, the earthshaking tomes of Copernicus and Darwin, modern printing methods, the publishing industry. Illustrations feature Mayan codices, Indian miniatures, the earliest known Beowulf manuscript, Durer, Raphael, Audubon, Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn, Maurice Sendak. A feast for booklovers, this volume affirms the power of books to change the world and our lives.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

There is a common misconception about books which look good on coffee tables that they must be intellectually deficient and lacking in content. That premise certainly doesn't hold true for this enjoyable publication. Its scope is broad, for it includes information not only on the history of books but also on the evolution of the printing industry, libraries, medieval illumination and modern illustration, the book trade (including book fairs and bookstores), problems with bookworms (genus Anobium , not avid readers), and methods of conservation. The illustrations, most of which are in color, are taken from such sources as Pompeian walls, papyrus scrolls, medieval parchment and vellum manuscripts, woodcuts, frescoes, and panel paintings. If the author errs, it is in trying to present too much information and in sometimes failing to define terms adequately. Nonetheless, this is a fine addition to any library and should appeal especially to book collectors, librarians, and--because of its many illustrations--art historians and picture researchers.
- Margarete Gross, Chicago P.L.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Smithsonian Books; Reissue edition (September 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 089599030X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0895990303
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1 x 11.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #547,904 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By JLind555 on April 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Gorgeously illustrated with pictures from library collections all over the world, "The Smithsonian Book of Books" is a bibliophile's paradise. As Michael Olmert shows us, books became one of the world's most powerful means of disseminating information and entertainment. Can anybody imagine life without books?
We learn how books developed from the papyrus and parchment rolls of the Egyptians and Greeks to the Roman codex, which transformed the book into the shape we know today, and how "people of the Book" -- Christians, Jews and Muslims, produced glorious volumes meant to teach the word of God. But these masterpieces were made by hand, every word and every stitch; they weren't for the the great unwashed masses. The Middle Ages, with their gloriously illuminated religious tomes sandwiched between jeweled covers that were worth a prince's ransom, turned out books that were museum pieces; some more famous examples of illumination were the "Tres Riches Heures of Jean Duc of Berry", and the Irish "Book of Kells". The spread of handwritten books for keeping accounts made possible the development and spread of commerce during the Renaissance. But the Gutenberg revolution, the development of movable type, brought books down from the rarefied atmosphere of prized possessions for the rich alone, and made books and the dissemination of knowledge and information available to everyone.
Olmert relates in detail how books were made, the development of different typefaces, and writes two fascinating chapters on the crafts of bookmaking and bookbinding. There are also chapters on the role of illustration in books by etching and engraving as well as drawing and painting, and how illustrations in texts were used to teach as well as embellish.
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on September 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The contemporary books we buy today fill many categories, and while they may be special for a variety of reasons, their mass production that condemns them to a comparatively brief life, also is the cause of how visually dismal they are.
There are some small private presses that still produce books as artisans, some even completely by hand, but the product is often well beyond the budgets of all but affluent collectors. Reading a work by Dickens is undeniably a thrill, but even Dickens believed his books were enhanced with imagery, so artists were part of his books, fellow craftsmen he chose to compliment his tales.
This book by Michael Olmert is for people who love books for not just what they contain, but the manner in which they were presented. Mr. Olmert also provides a very readable history of books from long before Guttenberg printed his Bible, from a time when a book was done by hand, every letter, every stitch.
This book presents some of the greatest rarities that have been preserved, so while you may covet a Book Of Hours, A Book Of Kells, or an illuminated page that rivals the art placed on canvas, your savings are safe. This is "The Smithsonian Book Of Books" so nobody can take any of these treasures home.
Mr. Olmert states, "The book is perhaps humankind's most powerful intellectual creation". A rather daring claim, but this book backs it well.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A. Bredahl on September 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I had been assigned this book for a college course on (duh) the history of books. Before the semester had started, I had actually read the entire book, really geeky yes, but it was a wonderful book! It was engaging and full of images. It made me forget that I was actually learning something! I would highly recommend this book to anyone.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Book Knurd on January 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This book is indispensible for any book lover who not only enjoys the contents of books but also gets a charge from simply being in the company of books.

Though, at times, the author's opinion shines through and the topic matter can be somewhat dry (the history of fonts - yawn), it is generally an excellent, interesting and informative discussion of the life of the book.

The reader is led on a journey that begins in a time documented on material plucked from mother earth and ends with a discussion of the modern book business. Along the way the reader is treated to hundreds of tidbits about the materials, fonts, type, inks, presses, people, processes and works that were instrumental in the evolution of the book into it's modern form.

In addition, the real payoff is the inclusion of hundreds of beautiful and informative pictures and illustrations supporting the topic matter. The reader is richly rewarded with pictures of important books and people as well as many representations of covers, pages and detail from important books past and present.

Will the average book reader be interested in reading this book? Doubtful. Most will likely just thumb through the pages and look at the grapics. Will the average book LOVER be interested in reading this book? Absolutely - It's an excellent resource for anyone who loves books as much for what's inside as for what is outside.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By S. Smith-Peter on November 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This book provides a beautiful and enjoyable journey through the history of the book. Beginning with the invention of language, it carries through the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all "people of the book." Then it wends through the history of Celtic manuscripts, the invention of printing, the decline of craft traditions and their rebirth with the great book designers and typographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then turns to the history of libraries, children's books, and the book business.

One of the great pleasures of the book are its illustrations. The large-format allows for real tactile sense of the beauties of illuminated manuscripts and fine printing. The writing is done in what I call Washington D. C. humanism, which aims at making the best in human creativity broadly accessible. This style is very easy to read but it does tend to be celebratory pretty much all the time. I prefer it to other styles of writing that assume the reader has as much knowledge as the writer, but I also sometimes feel a bit worn out at the end of such a book, as if I had spoken to an extremely enthusiastic believer for hours at a party.

The book was written in 1992, and I found it melancholy that it points to the rise of Borders book chain as a spot of hope in the bookstore business. Also it is interesting to see how people thought that everything would be stored on CD-ROM. However, the section on the future is quite small and it is in celebrating the glories of the past that this book excels.
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