“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx
In the 16th century, the world’s bestselling book was not the Bible but Erasmus’s handbook on good manners for children, De Civilitate Morum Puerilium Libellus. Written in Latin in Freiburg in 1530, it has run to 130 editions over 300 years. It was translated into 22 languages within a decade of publication.
The record for the world’s slowest-selling book is held by the Oxford University Press’s translation of the New Testament from Coptic into Latin. Five hundred copies were printed in 1716; the last one was snapped up in 1907. Books have been printed in Oxford since 1478, but the first one printed there – an analysis of the Apostles’ Creed – had a misprint on the first page: it was dated 1468 not 1478.
The oldest-dated book in the world is the British Library’s copy of the Diamond Sutra, printed in China in 868. Before the Renaissance, three-quarters of all the books produced in the world were Chinese.
Slow sellers II
In more recent times, of the 200,000 books that had recorded sales in 2008, only 10,000 sold more than 3,500 copies. Of the 1.2 million different titles sold in the US in 2004, only two per cent sold more than 5,000 copies. In 2007, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) revealed that the average UK author earned £16,000, 33 per cent below the national average wage. Strip out the top 10 per cent of authors, and a writer’s average annual income falls to £4,000.
Giacomo Casanova (1725-98) wrote 42 books, including works on the history of Poland, a translation of Homer’s “Iliad” into modern Italian and a five-volume science-fiction novel which predicted the motor car, the aeroplane, television and more. But his masterpiece is his 12-volume memoir, The Story of My Life. Running to 3,600 pages, the book is written in French, because Casanova thought it more sophisticated than his native Italian. Not published in full until 1960, it records each significant moment in Casanova’s life up until the summer of 1774 (when he was 49); at which point, the narrative stops in mid-sentence. The memoir was written when Casanova was in his sixties: a washed-up, impotent, pox-riddled librarian in an obscure Bohemian castle. Bored out of his mind, he began to write as “the only remedy to keep from going mad or dying of grief”.
The US inventor and architect Richard Buckminster Fuller began a chronological record of everything in his life as a child in 1907. Called the “Chronofile”, it is possibly the most detailed document of a single human life ever compiled. The scrapbook contained copies of all his letters, newspaper clippings, notes and sketches – even dry cleaning bills. It was stored in leather volumes but eventually just put in boxes – by the end of his life, this “lab notebook” of his great experiment occupied 270 feet of shelf space.
Nabokov wrote some of his novels – including Lolita – on index cards while he was a curator of butterflies at Harvard University. His wife, Vera, would drive him out on butterfly collecting trips and after he’d collected his specimens he’d sit down to write on the same index cards he used to catalogue his species. After he’d finished writing, she’d type up his handwritten cards.
Part of the M6 toll road is built from copies of pulped Mills and Boon novels. 2.5 million books were shredded into a paste and then added to a mixture of asphalt and Tarmac to prevent it cracking. The British Library’s collection of Mills & Boon novels was once stored in “The Arched Room” at the British Museum, but when the library moved to its new site they were replaced with clay tablets covered in cuneiform writing that once formed part of the library of King Ashurbanipal, a sixth-century King of Assyria.