The best books about books

Ross King Author Of The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance
By Ross King

Who am I?

Ross King is the author of numerous books about Italian and French art and architecture, including Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, and Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies. As a full-time writer, he spends much of his time in libraries, archives, and the among piles of books on his overcrowded shelves.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance

What is my book about?

The Bookseller of Florence tells the true story of the fifteenth-century manuscript dealer Vespasiano da Bisticci, who began work in a bookshop in Florence at the age of eleven, and who ultimately became what a friend called “the king of the world’s booksellers.” As well as the king of booksellers, he was the bookseller to kings. He plentifully supplied the crowned heads of Europe, as well as Pope Nicholas V, with gorgeously illuminated manuscripts for the libraries that they used to burnish their reputations for cultural refinement. But just as he reached the height of his powers, a new invention, the printing press, appeared in Germany, forever changing how knowledge would be transmitted.

The books I picked & why

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Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World

By Christopher De Hamel,

Book cover of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World

Why this book?

Christopher de Hamel, a renowned expert on illuminated manuscripts, takes us on a tour of magnificent libraries and “interviews” some of their treasures—ones so valuable and so fragile that they are almost completely inaccessible to the public. Many are also big: he gives a priceless description of the Codex Amiatinus, now in Florence, as “the weight of a fully grown female Great Dane.” His approach is both magisterial and chattily intimate. As the covers of the manuscripts creak open—and as de Hamel describes even the scent of the parchment—we get glimpses into long-lost worlds of scribes, monks, and scholars from across the centuries.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World

By Christopher De Hamel,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An extraordinary and beautifully illustrated exploration of the medieval world through twelve manuscripts, from one of the world's leading experts.

Winner of The Wolfson History Prize and The Duff Cooper Prize.

A San Francisco Chronicle Holiday Book Gift Guide Pick!

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is a captivating examination of twelve illuminated manuscripts from the medieval period. Noted authority Christopher de Hamel invites the reader into intimate conversations with these texts to explore what they tell us about nearly a thousand years of medieval history - and about the modern world, too.

In so doing, de Hamel introduces us to kings,…


The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice

By Martin Lowry,

Book cover of The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice

Why this book?

More than forty years after its first publication, this biographical study is still one the best things ever written on Manutius—arguably the most important printer in history after Gutenberg. Lowry shows how this obscure teacher of Greek moved to Venice in 1490 and became not only a printer and designer of genius but also a shrewd businessman whose publications put the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans into the hands of everyday readers. As Lowry explains, the concerns of Manutius ring an all-too-modern tone: how to disseminate information without “the debasement and dilution of learning” and “the spread only of confusion, obscenity, and heresy.”

The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice

By Martin Lowry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World of Aldus Manutius as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hardcover, green cloth, 1st U.S. Edition, a clean bright copy in dust jacket that has minor dust soil, light wear and is now protected in a clear Brodart cover. Contents clean and unmarked, 350pp, includes bibliography, index, b/w illustrations, notes at the end of each chapter. Publisher's statements: "The relationship between Renaissance scholarship and printing is the subject of this fascinating biographical study. The book centers on the life and work of Aldus Manutius (1450-1515), printer and man of letters--his background, his business practices, and his impact on the intellectual life of the times. Martin Lowry discusses the structure of…


The Book on the Bookshelf

By Henry Petroski,

Book cover of The Book on the Bookshelf

Why this book?

This is an utterly charming book written by an engineer whose specialty is the history and design of everyday objects. How and why books have come to occupy shelves may not seem an especially promising subject, but Petroski is a fascinating guide to book production and consumption down the centuries. He gives us insights into everything from how ancient scholars kept papyrus scrolls open as they read them, to the shelves designed to hold the Library of Congress's massive loads of books. As someone who has suffered the occasional bookshelf collapse, I can appreciate the structural failure at Northwestern University that Petroski describes—one that resulted in a domino-effect toppling of more than a quarter of a million volumes.

The Book on the Bookshelf

By Henry Petroski,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Book on the Bookshelf as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

He has been called "the poet laureate of technology" and a writer who is "erudite, witty, thoughtful, and accessible." Now Henry Petroski turns to the subject of books and bookshelves, and wonders whether it was inevitable that books would come to be arranged vertically as they are today on horizontal shelves. As we learn how the ancient scroll became the codex became the volume we are used to, we explore the ways in which the housing of books evolved. Petroski takes us into the pre-Gutenberg world, where books were so scarce they were chained to lecterns for security. He explains…


The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt,

Book cover of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Why this book?

This is a book about one book in particular: Greenblatt looks at the rediscovery of a manuscript by the Roman poet Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in the early 1400s. The poem’s philosophy—a strikingly novel mix of pleasure-seeking and atheism—influenced many philosophers and scientists in the decades and centuries that followed, from Machiavelli to Galileo and Newton. Greenblatt may overstate his case, but the narrative proceeds at a wonderful clip as he presents a harrowing portrait of the fragility of knowledge and a compelling argument for the power of books and ideas to change our thinking about the world.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Swerve as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the winter of 1417, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties plucked a very old manuscript off a dusty shelf in a remote monastery, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. He was Poggio Bracciolini, the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance. His discovery, Lucretius' ancient poem On the Nature of Things, had been almost entirely lost to history for more than a thousand years.

It was a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that religious fear is damaging to…


The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World's Greatest Library

By Edward Wilson-Lee,

Book cover of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World's Greatest Library

Why this book?

Hernando Columbus, the illegitimate son of Christopher, seems like a character straight out of a Jorge Luis Borges short story: an extraordinary collector (even hoarder) of books and the founder of a labyrinthine library (the remnants of which are now in the Biblioteca Colombina in Seville Cathedral). The book is chockful of delightful anecdotes and sharp observations thanks to Wilson-Lee’s unerring eye for the many eccentricities of Hernando who, with his magnificent obsession, voyaged, like his father, across the frontiers of knowledge.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World's Greatest Library

By Edward Wilson-Lee,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This impeccably researched and “adventure-packed” (The Washington Post) account of the obsessive quest by Christopher Columbus’s son to create the greatest library in the world is “the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters” (NPR) and offers a vivid picture of Europe on the verge of becoming modern.

At the peak of the Age of Exploration, Hernando Colón sailed with his father Christopher Columbus on his final voyage to the New World, a journey that ended in disaster, bloody mutiny, and shipwreck. After Columbus’s death in 1506, eighteen-year-old Hernando sought to continue—and surpass—his father’s campaign to explore the boundaries of the known world…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in modernity, the Middle Ages, and Europe?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about modernity, the Middle Ages, and Europe.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Medieval Bodies, The King Must Die, and Cosimo De' Medici and the Florentine Renaissance if you like this list.