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  • Writer's pictureJeff Kerr

The First of Everything

Okay, not everything. Not even most things. But some things. Specifically, certain milestones in the history of books. Here are a few that I’ve always wondered about. Now, with a little help from the internet, I no longer wonder.

Everyone knows that the first book to be mass-produced on a press with movable type was the Bible. Today we call it the Gutenberg Bible, but it is doubtful that its creator, Johannes Gutenberg, would have had the hubris to refer to it by that name. He began working on the book in 1450. When he finished in 1454 or 1455 it immediately shot to the top of the Amazon best-seller list.

The earliest known image of Gutenberg is a woodcut that appeared in a 1565 book with a seven-word Latin title containing a total of 56 letters, one of which is ‘q.’ That same image was used in other contemporary books about other famous men. Such chicanery was easy to pull off in those days as only the Pope had access to Google image search, and he couldn’t remember his password. The image shown here is not that woodcut, but the earliest known photograph of Willie Nelson.

Forty-nine Gutenberg Bibles remain, of which only 21 are complete. I once saw one at the University of Texas. It looked really old.

But enough about Gutenberg and his self-publishing career. Let’s move on to the world’s first paperback book. That honor goes to Collection of British and American Authors, published in 1841 by, what else, a German firm. To be specific, the German firm Bernhard Tauchnitz. The book was sold only in continental Europe. Despite there being no copyright laws in Germany at the time of publication, Bernhard Tauchnitz voluntarily paid royalties to the authors whose works they printed. Guys, we authors say, "Thank you."

The first mass-market paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane at Penguin Books. In 1935, Penguin simultaneously released 10 novels by such famous authors as Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, and Susan Ertz. Okay, today Susan Ertz is not remembered as a literary giant, but her novel In the Cool of the Day did become a 1963 movie of the same name starring Jane Fonda and Peter Finch. Its sequel, In the Heat of the Night, was not actually its sequel but did earn Rod Steiger a Best Actor Oscar. Anyway, Allen Lane wanted to make books so cheap they could be bought by people at railway stations or newsstands. Always strapped for cash, school libraries began buying them as well so they could ban books without straining the budget.

Next, we take a look at the first American novel to sell a million copies, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s work is one of two American books to exert massive influence on the course of American history, the other being Green Eggs and Ham. Robert Scarry, in his comprehensive biography of the great Millard Fillmore, claims that President Fillmore owned two copies of the book. This is significant because that's twice the number of people who believe Millard Fillmore was a real person and not a Donkey Kong character.

The first commercial design to appear on a publication’s cover was Aubrey Beardsley’s striking illustration for the July 1894 edition of Yellow Book. Beardsley was only 22 when he created the cover that inspired much of early 20th-century book design. He died four years later; some say of a broken heart caused by poor sales of the action figure based on the woman in his drawing.

We’ll wrap up our tour of notable firsts with the world's first action thriller, James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 novel The Spy. Set during the American Revolution, the story focuses on Harvey Birch and the mysterious Mr. Harper. Birch is suspected of being a British spy but is actually a patriot working with Mr. Harper to foil the plans of the dastardly British. Birch’s loyalty to the American cause is revealed only after he falls in battle. Bad luck, that. We also learn that Mr. Harper is … wait for it … George Washington! What a twist!

The Spy has been reprinted many times since its initial publication and has served as the inspiration for not one but two operas. As you can see, it has even appeared in comic book form. Now there’s a Marvel movie I’d stand in line for!

Thanks for reading!

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