When, towards the end of the 15th century, the printed book first appeared, after Gutenberg and Caxton, it was an expensive luxury of comparative rarity to be enjoyed by a tiny, literate minority. About a century later, an educated person might possess, if they were lucky, a library of no more than a few score titles. Shakespeare, we know, worked from some fine sources, like translations of Plutarch, but they were few. It’s often been pointed out that the library of the entire European intellectual tradition could have been loaded onto a single wagon as late as 1700.
In an age of mass culture, mass printings, and mass audiences, I think we sometimes lose sight of just how limited our capacity for books inevitably must be. Just because Random House will print and distribute some 5.5m copies of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol doesn’t mean that The Book typically enjoys a million-copy sale. Far from it. Titles like Dan Brown, though they will attract an extraordinary amount of attention, are the exception