Daniel L. Everett
It seems sensible to begin with the thing without which no book would or could exist: language. And in Daniel L. Everett’s provocative work, he argues that language—rather than an instinct, as has been commonly believed—is actually an invention like any other tool that humans have concocted.
Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors
Now that we’ve delved into language’s origins, how about we try to get a handle on its intricate (and sometimes infuriating) nuances? Bill Bryson, one of language’s best practitioners, helps us navigate the many irksome and confusing idiosyncrasies of English, in order to assist in any author’s goal of better and more effective communication.
Max Perkins: Editor of Genius
A. Scott Berg
Let’s move on to what is probably the most arduous components of book making: editing. And what better person to take us through this than Max Perkins, editor extraordinaire? The editor of, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Perkins was a fascinating figure himself. But his monumental efforts in fine-tuning some of the greatest works of the 20th century are what make A. Scott Berg’s biography so enriching and enlightening.
The Sense of Style
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is the best style manual I’ve ever read. This is because Pinker understands the most vital aspect of grammar—namely, that it is utterly arbitrary. Consequently, Pinker does not merely itemize a bunch of dictums and creeds but instead describes the numerous inconsistencies and oddities of English in order to make sense of why certain phrasings and techniques are more effective than others (and sometimes why it’s nothing more than personal preference).
Merchants of Culture
John B. Thompson
Now that the book is edited, it must be published. John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture tells the story of publishing in the last 60 years or so, and it’s not always a pretty picture. The industry has changed profoundly in this young century, from the digital revolution to the proliferation of storytelling forms.
Loren Glass’s book shows not just how a publishing company works but also the revolutionary impact they can potentially have. Grove Press, as run by Barney Rosset in the 1960s, didn’t just publish important books; they helped bring a stop to censorship. Rebel Publisher is a riveting glimpse into a tumultuous time in cultural history, and into the people who helped shepherd us through it.
The Clothing of Books
Now that a book is ready for publication, it needs a cover. Renowned novelist Jhumpa Lahiri takes us on a personal journey through the art of the book cover, from the perspective of a writer as well as an avid reader. Brief and eloquent, The Clothing of Books is a must for any bibliophile’s library.
What We See When We Read
So after a book has been written, edited, designed, and published, what is like to actually read? That’s the question at the heart of book-jacket designer Peter Mendelsund’s brilliant and absorbing book. With wonderful visuals accompanying the text, Mendelsund challenges some commonly accepted notions about the experience of reading in clear and relatable language. A one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
The Book That Changed America
While many books come and go without much fanfare, some—those lucky few—make enormous impressions on the world. Randall Fuller’s The Book That Changed America shows how Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species didn’t just influence people and culture but helped shape an entire country.
Reading Lolita in Tehran
But it isn’t just the ideas in a book that can irrevocably change things. Sometimes the mere act of reading—the freedom to do so—is its own revolution. Azar Nafisi’s inspiring memoir of a secret reading group she formed with women in Iran demonstrates just how powerful—and life-changing—the book can be.
The book—as in the object, the thing you hold in your hand—is without a doubt humankind’s greatest invention. The infinite benefits engendered by this sacred and profane device are impossible to list, and civilization as a whole would be completely unimaginable without it.
But books do not appear spontaneously, fully formed and ready to be read. A lot of unseen work goes into each and every book on your shelf. So in the interest of elucidating the many forces behind the most celebrated of human creations, here’s a list that takes you through every aspect of the book—from the components that make them up (language), to the efforts to make them readable (editing), accessible (publishing), and marketable (jacket design), and to the impact they can have once they’re out in the world. Here is proof that the book is as complex and powerful as the people who labor to bring them into our lives.
Featured Image: Susan Yin/Unsplash