Brain Pickings

The Evolution of the Book, Animated

From stretched animal skins to metal alloys to pixels, an inquiry into what makes a book.

The Evolution of the Book, Animated

Carl Sagan saw books as “proof that human beings are capable of working magic.” “Reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised,” Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska observed in her memorable meditation on why we read. “If anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space … the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books,” Hermann Hesse asserted in his increasingly timely 1930 contemplation of why the magic of the book will outlast other technologies. Books, Susan Sontag wrote in her beautiful letter to Borges, grant us “a way of being fully human.” Indeed, any thinking, feeling human being knows that it is impossible to be fully alive and awake to the world without reading, and so we’ve come to see books not only as essential to our humanity.

But this wasn’t always so. Although our humanoid ancestors have walked this earth for millions of years, writing has only been around for several thousand and printed books as we know them for not even six hundred. If the history of our species since the first modern humans were plotted on a 12-hour clock, modern books would emerge just after the seconds hand sweeps the bottom of the dial at 11:57pm.

So how did something so nascent become so elemental to our humanity? That’s what educator Julie Dreyfuss and animator Patrick Smith (whose unmistakable style you might recognize from his wonderful work for Blank on Blank) explore in this short TED-Ed animation chronicling the history of books:

As the book evolves and we replace bound texts with flat screens and electronic ink, are these objects and files really books? Does the feel of the cover or the smell of the paper add something crucial to the experience, or does the magic live only within the words, no matter what their presentation?

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on why we read and write, Kafka’s terrific and slightly terrifying metaphor for what books do for the human spirit, and this vintage illustrated love letter to how books are made, then revisit other terrific TED-Ed animated primers on what makes you you, how melancholy enhances creativity, why some people are left-handed, what depression actually feels like, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.

Published June 29, 2016




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