Cover Image: The Book-Makers

The Book-Makers

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Member Reviews

This is a fun and quick read on the history of bookmakers, though it isn’t a complete history of print, and is structured more as a series of vignettes about historical figures in bookmaking than a piece of narrative nonfiction on the subject.

I enjoyed a lot of this and it’s terrifically well balanced in the sense that it’s both dense and approachable, but it is a narrow lens through which to explain bookmaking, and not really anything new if you read a lot of books about books.

If you’ve not read anything on the history of bookmaking prior to this, it’s probably a more useful read than for those who come in with some background on the subject. I enjoyed it, but as someone who has now read several books of this nature on this topic, I didn’t get much new information out of this beyond different bits of anecdotal information than those chosen by others who covered the same general subject.

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The Book-Makers by Adam Smyth is a book about books, and the people who made them. It is is a history of the book told through biographical portraits of eighteen men and women, each of whom made, or is making, vital contributions to the development of the book as a physical form across a period of about 530 years. For example, William Wildgoose took meticulous care in turning printed sheets into bound, coherent objects that could endure through time, giving sturdy physical presence to words and thoughts. With topics covering aspects of binding to typography, illustrations to circulations, it can be quite academic to read at times. However, the author reveals the stories behind the bookmakers who changed the course of history. ‘The story of the physical book is a story made by people, not algorithms, individuals with messy lives, and ideals, and talents, and non-infinite resources, and with other things to do.’

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I’m a sucker for any books about books. This nonfiction book by Adam Smyth is a wonderful collection of stories about books and the people who dedicated a lot of their lives to them. Smyth’s writing is accessible and easy to understand. I typically take a lot longer to get through nonfiction than fiction but I sailed through this book. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about specific bookmakers and their contributions to the field.

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A highly readable history of the book through 18 individuals, The Book-Makers explores the varied world of those who create printed works across five centuries from the early days of printing with Wynkyn de Word, through the ephemeral focused Franklin to the small scale contemporary zine makers.

Adam Smyth is a historian, but writes a clear narrative with many an aside or reaction to the content. But Smyth also shares from the figures he portrays, reactions to their works, public perception, or after the fact understandings. 11 chapters are featured, each with a theme that mostly focuses on one person, movement, time period or ideal. These chapters use these thematic points to discuss the changing history of book making, noting key technological adaptations, adoptions or advancements. While Smyth is predominantly focused on the Western world, he is clear to show that the development of paper and printing globally, with credit to China for the development of paper and printing and it’s spread west through the Islamic Middle East.

While Book-Makers is arranged chronologically, as it is centered on people, it is not a straightforward historical narrative. Instead it follows the lives as they unfurled with all the pettiness, success, challenges and missed opportunities that could entail. Of the many themes, some of the centrals ones are the consideration of the book as both a vehicle for the diffusion of knowledge and the book as a physical object that was purposefully created telling something of all those involved in the creation and the life (/lives) of their owner(s).

Recommended to librarians, historians and those interested in the history of the book.

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Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for early access to this book. I just started section/chapter two and I’m really enjoying it. I’m finding the history of books and printing them very fascinating right now. But I won’t have this finished by the publication date.

This is a nonfiction book, so it’s very fact heavy, which is great, but slow paced reading. I have it on preorder and put it on hold at the library to see if the print version will be faster reading than on my Kindle.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of books and printmaking. I think the way he’s using people’s lives to help filter the information is a great technique.

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ARC provided by the Publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Considering how much I love books and reading, it is a shame that I haven't really read that much about the non-fiction (historical, social and technical) aspects of "book-making".

But this book has been a very nice remedy to counterbalance this shortcoming.

Author Adam Smyth's book is truly a worthy celebration of the BOOK/BOOKS and offers you historical, social and technical overview between the 1500s into the 2000s and treats the topics with joy and respect that really resonated with me as a booklover.

There are 11 chapters on the topics:

- Printing
- Binding
- Cut and Paste
- Typography
- Non-Books
- Paper
- Extra-Illustration
- Circulation
- Anachronistic Books
- Small Presses
- Zines, Do-it-yourself, Boxes, Artists' Books

Now this may sound dry, but the topics combined with the human element through it all makes it very interesting. The stories he chose of people (Wynkyn de Worde, Mary and Anna Collett, Benjamin Franklin & Charlotte and Alexander Sutherland - just to name a few) who were all big in the book-making department in their own ways are very intriguing.

There is a somewhat limiting factor as the author concentrates mostly on the England-US part of the world with honorary mentions outside that territory, though he acknowledges the profound debt to "immigrants from other lands". Of course, this does not takes away from the enjoyment or the validity of the information we are offered, but it left me wanting more on a wider scale.

Highly recommended.

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This chronical reveals the stories behind the bookmakers who changed the course of history: from the pioneering printers and designers who first experimented with the printed form, to the authors and visionaries who harnessed books’ power to create, document, and entertain.

This history of the printing industry is well-researched and easy to read. The title is misleading, since this isn’t a history of the book. It deals more with the process than the product.

Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.

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This was an informative look at the history of books and how they have been made. It also included written materials beyond books, like magazines. I found it interesting. The photos that are included were an excellent addition. I really enjoyed seeing some of the materials being mentioned.

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Thank you so much to NetGalley, Basic Books, and Adam Smyth for allowing me to review this fascinating book. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in the history of printed books. There is a lot of information packed into this book, but I found it all very interesting. Thank you again for allowing me to review this interesting nonfiction book.

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As someone who's been in publishing for more than 30 years and as a bibliophile, I gravitate toward books on the history of the industry, and this one is really good. It gave me the same shiver I felt when, at an antiquarian bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., I was encouraged to pick up and leaf through the first edition of Spencer's FAERIE QUEEN I'd been gawking at. The shopkeeper said I shouldn't worry about hurting the book, it was built to last, and was he ever right. They made a book well back then, and THE BOOK-MAKERS celebrates this craft by showing how that proceeded through nearly a dozen fascinating milestones. While Smyth's book is a bit overpacked at times, perhaps because there aren't that many facts to pack in so nothing was left to waste, and a bit dry here and there, I nonetheless ended the book wanting to buy a handpress and start churning out pages.

And there's much of current relevance. Former head of Macmillan Don Weisberg said during the DOJ's case against the PRH merger with S&S that a subscription book service, a Netflix for books, would destroy publishing. Setting aside that he seems to have forgotten about the existence of libraries--which is fitting because Macmillan largely ignores this market, despite it being the same size as the indies--I was fascinated by the history of the subscription libraries that preceded civic ones and how they not only didn't put publishers out of business, they bought a ton of books. I was also amused by the literary writer getting shut out of the biggest subscription service for a reason that echoes the Trump trial about election interference; the author's novel being too louche for their subscribers just as David Pecker said that a story on Stormy Daniels wouldn't work for the National Enquirer because it would upset shoppers at their biggest customer, Walmart.

What I appreciated most, though, was being inspired by the artistic approaches of these bookmakers. I recently went to a performance of several experimental plays at the Cut Edge Collective in NYC, which made me want to try my hand at writing some experimental plays too, and there was a lot in this book to prompt approaches and ideas, especially the Harmonies of LIttle Gidding. I found myself highlighting much more than I normally do.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the early look.

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"The Book-Makers" is a good overview of the history of books, structured by the lives of different "book makers": binders, printers, papermakers, etc. It's not a biography because there isn't much information on many of the people Smyth is focusing on--Benjamin Franklin being one of the exceptions--but he is able to explore their lives through their work and the way that influenced the book as a form and culture as a whole.

The book can be a little dry at times. You really should be interested in the topic before you start reading it. But there are pure golden moments throughout the book that reflect on the history of books, of book-makers, and the history of a single book and the life that its had. If you like reflecting on any of these things, I would recommend "The Book-Makers" to you.

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Excellent work indeed, for anyone who loves books and wonders of the many lives involved in creating them through the centuries. It is thoroughly researched without sounding too academic for the average reader who would be interested in a historical non fiction read such a as this one. it makes you curious to learn about the lives of these amazing people and it is written in a way that makes you want to join the author in his research.

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"The Book-Makers" offers a captivating journey through the history of printed books, shedding light on the individuals who played pivotal roles in their creation. Through vivid portraits of eighteen remarkable figures, this book provides a fresh perspective on the evolution of Western culture's most cherished object.

Books have been instrumental in shaping human civilization, serving as vessels for creativity, knowledge, and entertainment. Yet, the individuals behind the scenes—the renegade book-makers who pushed the boundaries of printing, design, and binding—often remain overlooked. "The Book-Makers" seeks to rectify this by bringing these fascinating characters to the forefront.

From Wynkyn de Worde, whose printing of fifteenth-century bestsellers revolutionized the industry, to Nancy Cunard, whose avant-garde pamphlets challenged societal norms, each chapter offers a glimpse into the lives and contributions of these unsung heroes. Through their stories, we gain a deeper appreciation for the rich tapestry of human ingenuity and creativity that has shaped the world of books.

Whether you're a book lover, history enthusiast, or simply curious about the people behind the pages, "The Book-Makers" is a celebration of the enduring power of the written word and the visionaries who brought it to life.

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What an incredibly interesting book! I have learned so much about the history of the thing I've more or less dedicated my life to! The book was well paced, and not too difficult, if sometimes a little bit over-detailed for my liking. There is so much warmth seeping through the pages as well, you can definitely tell from reading it that it has been written by someone who treasures books.

This feels like a book for any reading enthusiast, as well as someone who is just simply interested in history in general seeing as so much of history is centered around our ability to record and preserve things on paper.


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This was such an interesting book. I love how the author found specific people through history and did his best to really flesh out what their life would have been like. For example, in one spot, there's a fingerprint, an accident of whoever was making the book brushing the page with his hand--I mean, how cool is that? This was a much needed book and would be a great gift to a book lover!

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This isn't a history of bookmaking from the dawn of time to our day, so readers shouldn't expect it from this book. Instead, this is a short history of bookmakers, that is: the people who contributed to the evolution, transformation, and betterment of books since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century that made books possible in the form we know them now: printed words on paper.

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The Book-Makers is clearly a book by someone who loves books, as a method for information transfer and as a physical art in themselves. I think that the choice to illustrate aspects of the development of books through telling the stories of people was a good one, showing the human character of the form clearly. I feel that some of the chapters do have a tendency to wander a bit, losing that direct link to the person the chapter ostensibly centers around. In all, the book was an enjoyable, informative read.

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Books about books are some of the best types, but combine it with cool history, and you get something even better. I found that I hadn't heard of many of the people in this book, which made it that much more interesting. A fun and informative read for history and book lovers alike!

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What a detailed and absorbing read. Well written entertaining this book really transports you to the scenes of book printing, use of paper and all sorts of interesting topics about books. Thank you to #netgalley and the publisher for an ARC.

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—Thank you so much to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for the chance to review an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Every reader that loves books with their whole heart and soul should read this. It was such an interesting experience.

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