Capitalism is… books

It is easy to overlook the miracles of capitalism. They surround us, but they blend in and become invisible. They become the ‘new normal.’ We take them for granted.

This helps explain why some people don’t give capitalism the credit it deserves. So, let’s shed light on some of these miracles. Here, we’ll look at books.

A brief history of books

Over the past 5,000 years, people have used different forms of books, constructed of different materials.

Tablets: The earliest ‘books,’ dating to before 3000 BC, were clay and wax tablets. People would make marks on the tablet with a stylus. Tablets were better than nothing, but cumbersome and limited.

Scrolls: Between 2500 BC and 1000 BC, scrolls became the dominant form of ‘book’ in the world. Compared to tablets, scrolls allowed more and better writing and drawing, and were easier to transport.

A scroll is a rolled-up tube of one of the following writing materials:

  • Papyrus: This Egyptian invention was like paper, but thicker and rougher.
  • Parchment: This is prepared animal hide. It was used pretty much everywhere.
  • Paper: The Chinese invented paper in roughly 100 AD. Paper is superior because it’s lighter, thinner, and smoother.

Scrolls remained the dominant form of ‘book’ worldwide until roughly 300 AD, when a better format emerged in Europe.

Books: The book format we are familiar with today was invented in Europe around 100 AD. By 300 AD, this format was common across Europe.

Books are superior to scrolls in several ways. You can use both sides of the writing material. It’s easier to search for information by flipping pages than by unrolling a scroll. Books are also better for storage and transportation.

However, the use of Chinese paper did not spread to Europe until around 1200 AD. Until then, the pages of European books were usually parchment. To maintain flat pages, medieval books often used wooden covers clamped shut with straps or clasps.

Digital books: Of course, modern e-books make it even easier to search for information and are even easier to store and transport.

Soaring productivity

Making a book in 800 AD was mindbogglingly inefficient. Each book had to be individually copied by hand, with ink quills that needed constant refilling.

Productivity improved with the invention of the printing press in China in roughly 850 AD. This allowed multiple copies to be printed instead of copied by hand. Better, but still slow by modern standards.

Europeans introduced the mechanized printing press in the mid-1400s. This allowed printing at a rate of 250 sheets per hour. Still slow by modern standards. And productivity stagnated at 250 sheets per hour for more than three centuries.

It was not until the late 1700s that productivity really started to improve. Europeans and then Americans started experimenting with metal presses, rotating cylinders, and steam power. By the mid-1800s, an American had created a power-driven cylinder press that printed 8,000 sheets per hour.

Today, a newspaper-printing machine as large as a football field is capable of printing 300,000 copies per hour. A digital book can be reproduced across the internet at the speed of light.

Plummeting prices

Before the invention of power-driven paper mills and power-driven printing presses, books were extraordinarily expensive. Each page made of manually treated animal hide. Every word and drawing painstakingly copied by hand. A book was a craft item that could take six to twelve months to produce.

Obviously, book prices reflected this reality. In 1100 England, a book cost the typical laborer more than a year’s wages. In 1400 France, a book cost the better part of a year’s wages. Books were so costly, churches and universities literally chained them down to prevent theft!

Even after the printing press became power-driven, books were still somewhat expensive. I have an 1877 novel that includes a price list from the publisher. The typical price listed is $1.75, which equates to about $42 today. So, a book in 1877 cost two to three times more than today.

The improvement in affordability is even greater if we compare how much work is required to buy a book. In 1877, the average worker worked almost eight hours to buy that $1.75 book. Today, the average worker works only one third of an hour to buy a typical paperback. Amazing.

Today, most new books are affordable. Used books are available for pennies. We can also borrow books from libraries. Compared to a thousand years ago, books today are essentially free!

Expanding proliferation

As we’d expect, production and purchases of books soared as the price plummeted.

Five hundred years ago, the typical laborer couldn’t afford even one book. Only institutions and ultra-rich individuals could afford books.

Now, most people in the world can afford at least one book. An average worker in a developed country can have a personal library of dozens, or even hundreds, of books.

In Western Europe, annual per-person ‘consumption’ of books increased from essentially zero books in 1475 to 0.12 books in 1775. By 2017, per-person book sales had soared to 2.1 books in the US. And that doesn’t include e-books or audiobooks.

Prior to 1500, close to zero Europeans owned books. By 1725, according to probate inventory records, 22% of the English people owned books. Today, 100% of Europeans can own books, if they choose.

Books have transformed from rare curiosities to everyday items.

The benefits of books

The proliferation of books led to many benefits. Greater literacy, for example. The graph below shows the literacy rate for four major Western European countries (and the US) from 1475 to 2015. In 1475, only 5% to 15% of the population were literate. Today, it’s close to 100%.

Capitalism is books - literacy rate

Greater literacy leads to expanded knowledge. Knowledge helps improve crop yields, building designs, labor-saving devices, etc. That is, knowledge helps increase prosperity.

It doesn’t end there. The previous increase in prosperity then supplies greater numbers of people with greater amounts of time and resources to apply greater amounts of knowledge, which contributes to further prosperity gains. It’s a virtuous cycle, enhanced by cheaper books.

The proliferation of books also provides benefits beyond boosting prosperity. It gives us more options for education and entertainment.

Capitalist miracles

Capitalism encourages productivity and innovation. That’s how we get better and cheaper products, including books. It’s no accident that the greatest proliferation of books occurred in the capitalist era of post-1800.

The history of books illustrates a pattern of capitalism:

  • First, a new product gets invented, but it’s a high-cost luxury that only the wealthy can afford.
  • Second, the product becomes increasingly affordable as (a) the product becomes mass-produced and (b) workers earn higher pay.
  • Third, companies keep improving the features, cost, and quality of the product.
  • Fourth, the new and improved product becomes the new normal that we take for granted.

This capitalist pattern is wonderful for our standard of living. The average person becomes able to afford luxuries once available only to kings.

In the case of books, the pattern has been even more beneficial. The proliferation of books has done more than make life more enjoyable. Knowledge is a vital raw material for capitalism, so the proliferation of books has helped boost prosperity.

However, we must always remember the capitalist pattern is not guaranteed. It requires the right conditions. Chiefly, it requires free-market freedom and competition. That means enough government to provide a framework of stability, but not so much government that it stifles freedom and competition.

I encourage you to enter comments or questions below. Two rules: 1) be reasonably polite, 2) address the issue and avoid personal attacks.

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