A Roundup of History Lessons: Book Blurbs, Fairy Tales, Ebooks, and More

By Nikolai Ushin (1898–1942) (Lpamyatniki.narod.ru) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Nikolai Ushin (1898–1942) (Lpamyatniki.narod.ru) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s always fun to think about how things came to be. A couple weeks ago, I shared a bunch of links that looks at the present and predicts future trends. I think that understanding the past also helps us to better understand the present and look towards the future.

With that in mind, there have been some interesting stories going around the interwebs lately that talk about the past.

Book Blurbs

First, is the story of how blurbs came to be, according to NPR. The word “blurb” was first used in 1907, though the practice of writing short blurbs to help sell books had been going on for at least 50 years before the term was used:

In fact, many trace its conception to one of the titans of American letters: Walt Whitman — making use of a letter of his own, sent to him from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson apparently wrote of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

Interestingly, there’s no good way to track whether or not a book blurb helps increase sales (at least not yet). Blurbs aren’t just for readers though. They help an author get published, by giving some credibility while the book is being discussed by agents and editors. And it can help a book get into a physical store.

Fairy Tales

Next is my favorite story, how fairy tales came about, according to The Atlantic. According to the article,

Stories evolve. As they are told and retold to new audiences, they accumulate changes in plot, characters, and settings. They behave a lot like living organisms, which build up mutations in the genes that they pass to successive generations.

This is more than a metaphor. It means that scientists can reconstruct the relationships between versions of a story using the same tools that evolutionary biologists use to study species. They can compare different versions of the same tale and draw family trees—phylogenies—that unite them. They can even reconstruct the last common ancestor of a group of stories.

Jamie Tehrani and Sara Graça da Silva worked together to find the origins of well known stories. Although some people think fairy tales came about with the printing press, or were passed around “horizontally within generations,” Tehrani and da Silva found that were ancient, with some dating back 9,000 years. Analyzing these stories can help us understand cultural history.


On a more modern note, The Guardian shed some light on the origin of ebooks. Author Peter James published a thriller, Host, on a couple floppy disks back in 1993 (and got a lot of flack for it). But Project Gutenberg had been around since 1971 and encyclopedias had been published on CD-Roms in 1985.

Then there are interactive games/stories that date back to 1984. And a serial novel published as a database narrative in 1987.

The biggest question seems to be, what exactly constitutes an ebook? It’s not just a EPUB/MOBI/KF8 file.

Choose Your Own Adventure

MentalFloss and Marketplace both published pieces on the history of Choose Your Own Adventure. According to the articles, the concept came about in 1969, when a lawyer named Edward Packard was inspired by his kids to write an interactive story. He wrote Sugarcane Island, but it didn’t spark much interest until 1975. R.A. Montgomery from Vermont Crossroads Press wanted to publish it, but didn’t have enough resources for distribution. So he sent the book to literary agent Amy Berkower, and eventually Joëlle Delbourgo from Bantam picked it up. Together they created a series and launched the books in 1979.

According to the article,

By the late 1980s, the series was showing signs of exhaustion. Lackluster concepts like You Are a Shark were pushed through in the rush to keep the installments coming, and the number of possible endings in many titles dwindled. Early “Choose” books had dozens of endings; later entries saw as few as eight. Then, with the rise of video and computer games, which provided that same interactivity in an even more addictive format, “Choose”’s foothold in the market slipped. In 1999, after selling 250 million copies worldwide, the publisher retired the brand and let the trademark lapse.

Though the brand was retired in 1999, the concept seems to gaining momentum again. There’s at least one website dedicated to it.

Book Traditions

Last is Tree Hugger‘s article on how “Icelanders have a beautiful tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading.” According to the article,

This custom is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is the reason for the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” when the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.

Apparently only physical books count for this tradition, not ebooks.

And just for fun, not really having to do with history except for the fact that this has probably been going on for many many years, is a video from the BBC One that shows how hermit crabs exchange houses. It’s quite an involved team effort, and amazing to watch.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on June 13, 2016.


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