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The Book as Knowledge: Humanities

Watch the video then read the materials for this section.

Humanities is a collection of disciplines that explore humans and their culture.

This page explores autobiography, biography, memoir, and journals; environmental or ecological humanities; history; linguistics; music; philosophy; religion; and visual arts.

Autobiography, Biography, Memoir, and Journals

Autobiography, memoir, biography, journals, and diaries all focus on the lives of individuals and the world around them.

Autobiography and Memoir

benAn autobiography provides an account of a person's life. Written as a narrative of events of a person's life by its subject, it is written for an audience rather than being a private work. The quality of an autobiography is dependent on the author's writing skills as well as their memory. As such, autobiographies are subjective by nature.

Although the form of autobiography goes back to antiquity, it wasn't until the 18th century that the term was used. Early printed autobiographies often used the term "apologia" in the title indicating an account or story. In most cases, they were written near the end of the life of an individual.

A memoir contains a narrative of reminiscences based on the author's observations of life. Rather than focusing their own life, a memoir places the author within events providing firsthand descriptions of what happened. Authors of memoir often title their works "life and times" of the individual. Often written long after the incidents, a memoir doesn't have the day-to-day detail found in a journal.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) was an Italian sculptor who wrote Vita (1556-1558) about his life.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is an unfinished work written by Benjamin Franklin between 1771 and 1790. One of the most famous autobiographical works, it is divided into four parts. Franklin referred to the work as his memoirs.

Once the author of an autobiography dies, the work often takes on a life of its own. In many cases, the book is edited by people who didn't know the person.

try itTry It!
Explore an 1813 edition, a 1839 edition and a 1868 edition of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Compare the works starting on the title page.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) wrote five autobiographical works during his lifetime. Based on speeches and essays, they were authored with the help of ghost writers Timothy Thomas Fortune and Robert E. Park. Up From Slavery: An Autobiography (1901) became a bestseller. Providing insights into the life of a slave in America, it had a major impact on the African American community.

The images below show Up From Slavery: An Autobiography on the left and Booker T. Washington on the right.


Henry Adams (1838-1918) was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams. A journalist and historian, he is best known for his autobiography The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography published in 1907. After his death, the book was reissued and gained prominence.

Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) was a Norwegian adventurer who wrote Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft. First published in 1948 based on his experiences on an expedition in the Pacific Ocean, the book has sold more than 20 million copies.

Xaviera Hollander (1843-) co-wrote The Happy Hooker: My Own Story in 1971. The memoir is based on her experiences as a call girl and madam. Because of its catchy title and frankness about sexuality, it became a huge success. The book has sold more than 20 million copies.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) took a unique approach to his autobiography. During the last few years of his life, he dictated reminiscences, anecdotes and other information. In 1899 he developed a plan for his autobiography to be published 100 years from now or after his death so he could speak from his "whole frank mind". The first of the three volume text was published in 2010.

In some causes, autobiographies have been described as more fiction than fact. For instance, On the Road (1957) by Jack Kerouac (1933-1969) is known to include fictional elements. In addition, A Million Little Pieces (2003) by James Frey(1969-) has been described as embellished and sensationalized.

Today, many autobiographies are written by ghost writers working with a famous person such as a political figure or celebrity. Tuesdays with Morrie (1997) by Mitch Albom (1958-) is an example of a best selling contemporary memoir.


A biography contains a narrative account of the life of a specific person or group of related people. Well-written biographies are carefully researched and include the interesting and key events in the person's life.

Authorized biographies are written with the explicit consent of the subject or the subject's family.

Unauthorized biographies are written without the consent of the subject or the subject's family.

The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans written by Plutarch in the 10th and 11th centuries was published in 1517. Jacob Tonson printed several editions and it continued to be reprinted into the 18th century.

The image below shows an edition of Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans from 1727.


By the time of the printing press, church-oriented biographies were being overtaken by stories of knights and kings. Biographies can be found throughout history however they haven't always been totally fact. Often, early works included fictional elements making it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.

livesThomas Malory (c14xx-1471) is believed to have written Le Morte d'Arthur in the mid-15th century. This account of the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table blends fact and fiction.

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) published Lives of the Artists in 1550. Focusing on the secular lives of what he considered celebrities of his time, the book was a best seller.

The image on the right shows the title page to Lives of the Artists.

John Foxe (c1516-1587) wrote what may be consider the first dictionary of biography in Europe. Known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, it was published in 1563 and contained accounts of Protestant suffering under the Catholic Church.

James Boswell (1740-1795) was a lawyer and biographer who wrote the Life of Samuel Johnson published in 1791. His work was unique for the time. While others simply wrote about the person, Boswell incorporated descriptions of conversations he had kept in a personal journal. This made the work much more human and dramatic.

John Stevens Cabot Abbott (1805-1877) was an American historian and author known for his biographies such as History of Napoleon Bonaparte (1855), The History of Frederick II (1871), David Crockett (1874), and Daniel Boone (1876).

The images below are from History of Napoleon Bonaparte.


Many biographies have been written for children and young adults.

Elbridge Streeter Brooke (1846-1902) was known for his numerous fiction and nonfiction works for children. He wrote a number of books focusing on famous patriots such as The Century Book of Famous Americans (1896).

The image below is the title page to The Century Book of Famous Americans.


In the 20th century, authors of biography shifted from a focus on individual heroism to a look at psychological and sociological aspects of the individual. A new group of biographers emerged and biography became very popular in the 1920s. These biographers included Gamaliel BradfordAndré Maurois, and Emil Ludwig.

Lytton Strachery (1880-1932) was a leader in establishing a new form of biography based on psychological insights into individuals. Eminent Victorians published in 1918 explores four figures from the Victorian era. Rather than being viewed as heroes, the individuals are explored in an irreverence manner.

The image below is from Eminent Victorians .


A Diary

A diary is a personal, day-to-day record intended to be private. The writer may include feelings and experience not intended to be published. Diaries are sometimes published posthumously.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys was written between 1660 and 1669. It provides important insights into the activities of the time period including wars and disasters.

The Diary of Anne Frank was written between 1942-1944 by Anne Frank while in hiding during World War II. It was first published in the Dutch language in 1947. It was translated into English and republished in 1952 under the name Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. The book has sold over 30 million copies since its publication in 1947. It is often read by middle school students learning about racial persecution.

Environmental or Ecological Humanities

The area of environmental or ecological humanities draws on a number of sub disciplines including environmental philosophy, environmental history, and anthropology.

Outdoor Literature

Outdoor literature includes writing associated with the outdoors including exploration, adventure, and nature writing. The genre often overlaps with travel literature.

Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552-1616) an English author who wrote Divers Voyages in 1582 and The Principall Navigaions, Voiage, and Discoveries of the English Nation in 1589.

Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) wrote The Naturalist on the River Amazons describing the vanishing rainforest in 1863.

The image below is from The Naturalist on the River Amazons.


John MacGregor (1825-1892) wrote A Thousand Miles in a Rob Roy Canoe in 1866. The first documentation of recreational canoeing, it set the standard for this type of outdoor literature. Later, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) described his experiences canoeing through France and Belgium in An Inland Voyage in 1878.

Joshua Slocum (1844-1909) described his experience sailing around the world between 1895 and 1898 in Sailing Alone Around the World (1900).

Maurice Herzog (1919-2012) wrote Annapurna: Conquest of the first 8000-metre Peak in 1951 about a mountaineering expedition.

Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) wrote South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, 1914-1917 in 1917.

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) wrote Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West in 1954.

Jon Krakauer (1954-) wrote Into the Wild (1996) and Into Thin Air (1997) both dealing with outdoor adventure.

Nature Writing

Nature writing is nonfiction prose focusing on the natural environments. Authors often combine scientific fact with observations and personal experiences. Modern nature writing emerged in the 18th century.

Gilbert White (1729-1793) wrote Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne in 1789. It has been published continuously since then with nearly 300 editions. The book includes correspondence with naturalists of the times, observations of plants and animals, and natural history information.

The image below is the frontispiece from Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.


William Bartram (1739-1823) was an American naturalist known for combining his experiences traveling with natural history. A skilled illustrator, he incorporated botanic and ornithological drawings and maps into his books. He is most famous for Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, etc.. published in 1791.

The image below left is the frontispiece and title page to Travels... and the image is an illustration created by William Bartram.


John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a naturalist, painter, and ornithologist. The Birds of America (1827-1839) is his most famous work. He identified 25 new species.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) wrote The Voyage of the Beagle in 1839.

waldenRalph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an essayist who wrote the famous essay Nature in 1836.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is best known for Walden; or, Life in the Woods(1854) that describes how living a simple, self-sufficient life in nature could be inspiring.

The image on the right is the title page to Walden.

Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) was an English nature writer known for works including The Amateur Poacher(1879) and Round About a Great Estate (1880).

John Burroughs (1837-1921) was an American naturalist and essayist. His complete works contains 23 volumes published between 1871 and 1922.

John Muir (1838-1914) was an author and naturalist who advocated for preservation of wilderness. He wrote over a dozen books between 1874 and 1918.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is best known for A Sand County Almanac written in 1949.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is best known for Silent Spring. Her book is credited with drawing attention on environmental problems.

Edward Abbey (1927-1989) wrote a number of books on environmental issues including a novel titled The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) and a work of nonfiction nature writing titled Desert Solitaire (1968).

Lupfer, Eric (2001). Before nature writing: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company and the invention of the outdoor book, 1800-1900. Book History, 4, 177-204. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Books on the topic of history can be found across subjects.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published by English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) in six volumes between 1776 and 1789. It was known for its use of primary sources.

Archibald Alison (1792-1862) was a Scottish historian. He developed a multi-volume history of Europe published between 1833 and 1843. It was a commercial success.

Archibald Alison along with Keith Johnston (1804-1871) produced Atlas of Alison's History of Europe (1848) created a companion to his history of Europe. The book contained outstanding illustrations of fortifications and battle campaigns as well as a military and marine term glossary.

The image below shows military fortifications from the Atlas of Alison's History of Europe (1848).


The image below shows The Battle of Waterloo (1815) from the Atlas of Alison's History of Europe (1848).


During the late 19th century, American publishers entered the atlas publishing arena with detailed atlas of US cities like Washington, D.C.

The image below shows Washington D.C. in a 1887 atlas by Griffith Morgan.


Yesterday and To-day: a History (1905) explores the history of the Chicago & North-Western Railway and includes a foldout map.


In the preface to History of the Cherokee Indians and their Legends and Folk Lore (1921) by Emmet Starr , the author states his goal in writing the history. He states

"This humble effort is attempted for the purpose of perpetuating some of the facts relative to the Cherokee tribe, that might otherwise be lost. The object has been to make it as near a personal history and biography of as many Cherokees as possible.

Without the assistance of the magnanimous, wholesale membership of the nation, the work would not have been possible and for that reason I wish to thank each and every member, for their hearty collaboration and express my regret that the work has not the merit with which many others might have invest it. Claremore, Okla. December 12, 1921."

Read Parfait, Claire (2009). Rewriting history: the publication os W.E.B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction in American (1935). Book History, 12, 266-294. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Books like The Elements of Style (1919) by Strunk and White is a writing guide that has been reprinted for use by multiple generations. First printed in 1919, it was identified by Time magazine as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.

Georges Polti (1867-1946) was a French writer known for this work The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Translated to English in 1916, it continues to be popular with writers.


Because printing music involves hundreds of symbols, many music books continued to be made with woodcuts and engraving rather than typesetting.

A songbook is a collection of songs often illustrated with romantic images, coat-of-arms, or other emblems. During the 16th and 17th centuries they were often part of courtship.

The first book of sheet music printed from movable type was printed by Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) in 1501. Titled Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, it contains an anthology of secular songs. Petrucci printed two parts on the right-hand side and two on the left so four singers could read off the same sheet. This book revolutionized music distribution. The Franco-Flemish musical style became known internationally because of the broad distribution of the book.

The image below is from Harmonice Musices Odhecaton.


Amsterdamsche Pegasus was published in 1627. According to Lommen (2012, 154),

"this type of songbook originated from the Netherlands in the beginning of the seventeenth century and quickly became popular... most of these typographically well-designed songbooks were meant for upper-class adolescents, who would sing from them at parties and festivities."

A method book is designed to help students develop their musical technique for a particular instrument or voice type. These instruction manuals may be focused on particular skills levels.

In 1766, German composer Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), the father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, published an influential violin textbooks titled Versuch Einer Gundlichen Violinshule.

The images below are from Versuch Einer Gundlichen Violinshule.


During the 18th century, songbooks were popular both inside and outside the home as a form of recreation. While some contained music, others just displayed illustrations and words. Bickham's Musical Entertainer published in 1737-1738 contains verses, music, head and tail pieces, and wonderful illustrations.


Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) was a rationalist. His work Ethics was published in 1677.

During the Enlightenment period, many books stress the separation of church and government. A Letter Concerning Toleration, Concerning Civil Government, and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689-1692) by John Locke (1632-1704) stressed tolerance, liberty, and social justice.

candideIn The Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) by George Berkeley (1685-1753), he suggests that this world was given logic by the force of God and that the external world was composed solely of ideas rather than a physical form.

In 1748, David Hume (1711-1776) published A Treatise of Human Nature in 1739-40, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in 1748, and The Natural History of Religion in 1757. He was known his philosophical empiricism and skepticism.

Voltaire (1694-1778) was a philosopher during the French Enlightenment. His belief in freedom of expression and the separation of church and state can be found throughout his writing. Many of his works such as Candide (1759) bridged philosophy and adventure fiction.

The image on the right is the title page from Candide.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher. Critique of Pure Reason published in 1781 combined reason and experience. His work provides the basis for modern philosophy.

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) wrote Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820) and Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837). His work influenced many philosophers.


A religious book is a work based on a particular religious faith. These include sacred texts, inspirational titles, and materials for clergy.

A bible is any book that is widely accepted as being authoritative. A pocket bible is a small, portable bible with condensed text and a small type. A prayer book is a collection of prayers intended for private devotion.

Sacred Books

A sacred book also known as scripture or holy book is considered to be of central importance to religious tradition. Many movements believe that their sacred texts were divinely inspired. Sacred texts can be found in most of the world religions including Hinduism and Buddhism.

Read Olson, Carl (2013). The Sacred Book. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.


In Judaism, the Tanakh is the canon of the Hebrew Bible and contains 24 books. The Torah is one element containing five books associated with Jewish traditions and teaching.

The first Masoretic Mikraot Gedolot, a specific edition of the Tanakh was printed in 1524-1525. The Talmud or Shas is the central text of the Rabbinic Judaism. The first edition of the Babylonian Talmud was printed around 1520.

A current edition of the Tanakh is shown below left and the Quran is shown below right.



In Islam, the Quran is the primary holy book. However they also believe in four other book including the Torah as revealed to Moses, Zabur was revealed to David, Gospel as revealed to Jesus, and Quran.

The first printed copies of the Quran were ordered by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century. The first complete printed version was provided in 1537-1538.


The use of the world Bible (with a capital B) is used for the Christian scripture consisting of the Old and New Testaments. The Gutenberg Bible is the earliest known printed book. Published between 1450-1455 by Johann Gutenberg and Peter Schoffer in Mainz, Germany, around 180 copies were printed with 48 surviving.

The image below left shows a page from the Gutenberg Bible and below right shows the first printed Biblia Pauperum.


The Biblia Pauperum is a block-book published around 1450. This book was created in large numbers into the 16th century even though it wasn't initially produced on a printing press. About 1462 Albrecht Pfister (c1420-c1466) created the first edition using the printing press. Although the title uses the word pauper, the book was actually aimed at the middle and upper classes.

The King James Version of the Bible was first printed in 1611. It was the third translation into English to be approved by the English Church.

The image below shows the King James Version of the Bible published in 1611.

holy bible


mormonThe Book of Mormon is a sacred text of The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints church associated with the Mormon religion. Members of the church also use the King James Bible and other sacred texts in their religious worship.

Joseph Smith (1805-1844) first published The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi in 1830.

The Doctrine and Covenants is part of the scriptural canon and was originally published in 1835. The Pearl of Great Price is another canonical standard. The original contents of the book were printed in church periodicals. The first edition was compiled by Franklin Richards and published in 1851.

The image on the left is the title page to The Book of Mormon.

Christian Religion Worship Books

Religious books can be useful to history scholar in exploring the culture of a particular country or region.

A Sunday school book is a religious book used to teach lessons to children and adults attending a Christian church. Reflecting the particular denomination, they often combine text and illustrations. In some cases they are specifically geared to children.

A liturgical book contains materials used during religious services of a particular religion. A pontifical book is used in the Catholic church to detail the order of service. A missal is a book used by the priest in the celebration of Mass. A homilary is a book containing a collection of sermons or bible passages used during religious services.

wholeA hymnal is a collection of songs. In the Catholic church the book is based on the liturgical calendar, while in Protestant churches the book contains hymns sung during worship services.

A choir book contains songs used in religious services by a choir.

The Bay Psalm Book was compiled by members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who transcribed biblical psalms to be sung by the Puritans. First printed in 1640, it was revised with each new edition throughout the 17th century.

The image on the right is from the Bay Psalm Book.

To learn more about hymns, hymn writers, and hymn books, read The Fascination of Books (1912).

Religious Texts

In addition to the sacred texts and liturgical books used in worship, many books about religion have been written.

John Bunyan (1628-1688) wrote the Christian allegory The Pilgrims Progress from This World to That Which is to Come in 1678. It is considered a significant work of religious literature and has been translated into 200 languages.

John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French theologian and pastor of the Protestant Reformation. Institutes of the Christian Religion is a work of Protestant theology published in 1536 in Latin and 1541 in French. It is considered a foundational textbook on the Protestant faith.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German Catholic priest who played a central role in the Protestant Reformation. Luther wrote three major treatises in 1520 including Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Prelude On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian.

In recent years, inspirational text have become popular. Often connected with Christian literature, the works often provide advice and quote scriptures.

Rick Warren (1954-) is an American evangelical pastor and author. He wrote The Purpose Driven Life in 2002 and it has sold over 30 million copies.

To download holy sacred books from around the world, go to

To learn more about the role of sacred texts in the United States, browse Gutjahr, Paul C. (2001). The state of the discipline: sacred texts in the United States. Book History, 4, 335-370. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Visual Arts

From how-to drawing books to historical works, there are many types of visual arts books.

The New Universal Moulding Book (1891) provides wonderful insights into the architectural design of the time period it was written.

The image below shows designs for office or bank counters and wood mantels in The New Universal Moulding Book (1891).


In the 19th century art instruction books were popular such as "how to draw" books like What to draw and how to draw it by Edwin George Lutz, The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed, and Drawing for Beginners by Dorothy Furniss.

Costume Design and Illustration by Ethel Traphagen was published in 1918.


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de Hamel, Christopher (2001). The Book: A History of the Bible. Phaidon.

Downs, Robert Bingham (2004). Books the Changed the World. Penguin.

Francois, Pieter (2012). If it's 1815, this must be Belgium. Book History, 15, 71-92.

Green, Ian (2000). Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press. Preview Available:

Gutjahr, Paul C. (2001). The state of the discipline: sacred texts in the United States. Book History, 4, 335-370.

Harthan, John (1981). The History of the Illustrated Book: the Western Tradition. Thames and Hudson. Preview of 1997 edition Available:

Lommen, Mathieu (ed.) (2012). The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. Thames & Hudson.

Lounsberry, Barbara (1990). The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction. Greenwood Press.

Mugglestone, Lynda (2005). Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary. Yale University Press. Preview Available:

Olson, Carl (2013). The Sacred Book. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press.

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Van Kampen, Kimberly (1999). The Bible as Book: The First Printed Editions. Oak Knoll Publishing and the British Library.


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