Booksellers lead innovation

he Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill all fitting in a single book-shaped suitcase

It’s always nice to find historical evidence of the leading role the bookseller has taken in innovating the book industry. eReaders, which are frequently sold based on the portability they provide (the Kindle claims to hold 1100 books, therefore Kobo claims 10,000 and so on), are typically dated back to the Rocket eBook or Softbook Reader, both of which were the result of technological innovations developed by engineers.

he Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill all fitting in a single book-shaped suitcase
Photo by Mike Kelly

Thanks to Mike Kelly, of the The Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College,  we can look back beyond the technologists to a bookseller in the 1770s who saw the problem and developed an elegant solution. In 1777 a bookseller in Edinburgh, John Bell who had a reputation as “mischievous spirit, the very Puck of booksellers“, began production of an inexpensive collection of The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill. They were small, elegant volumes sized duodecimal to fit comfortably in the hand, with very small typefaces and authoritative engravings of the poets themselves. My grandmother had a complete set of 109 volumes which I remember filling several shelves in her home. What I had not realized until reading Mike Kelly’s post and the engagingly written The Most Disreputable Trade: Publishing the Classics of English Poetry 1765-1810 by Thomas F. Bonnell, however, was that Bell had also included a marvelous travelling case for the books.

Bell was mocked by the establishment, and Bonnell describes the condescending attitude which the London literary and publishing crowd held toward this venture, described as a “little trifling edition” by one London contemporary. Bell, however, was a bookseller and clearly knew what readers needed: accurate, affordable readable editions that were standardized in design and which could travel conveniently. The book-suitcase is to my eye a marvelous idea and Mike Kelly is right to see it as a fore-runner to the modern eReader.

Bell may not have been the first to create a travelling library case, but he seems to have had some influence on their development. Witness Napoleon’s own travelling library.

Napoleon's travelling library which he took on his campaigns. Early Kindle.
Cork County Library ‏@corkcolibrary 8 Jan 2014 Napoleon’s travelling library which he took on his campaigns.

I'd like to hear any thoughts you have on this.