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

The Books I Picked & Why

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World

By Christopher De Hamel

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.


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

By Martin Lowry

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.”


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The Book on the Bookshelf

By Henry Petroski

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.


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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt

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.


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

By Edward Wilson-Lee

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.


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