How could we possibly know what the first book ever written was? The actual first book – whether written in China, India, Africa, Mesopotamia or wherever – dissolved into its constituent molecules aeons ago. Perhaps it survived long enough to be shelved at the Library of Alexandria and suffer neglect for being old-fashioned. Or maybe it just mouldered in the back of a cave after its owner (and author?) was eaten by a pack of dire wolves. Who knows. It’s gone. Into its place must fall some interloper, like johnny-come-lately The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Unless you want to become a white-glove-wearing, scholar-nerd who spends their life in climate-controlled rooms at the Vatican, flipping page fragments with fancy tweezers, you will have to be satisfied with a limited and fake collection of the Oldest Books, because though there definitely exist titles older than the ones on this list, you can’t read them. They’re fragile. They’re untranslated or untranslatable (looking at you, Etruscans). They’re priceless and guarded by dudes in kaleidoscope jammies and pointy sticks. They’ve never been published because no one would buy them. For whichever or all of these reasons: resign yourself. These are the oldest books you’ll ever have access to.
QUICK SIDEBAR: How to define what we mean by “book”? That’s a tough one. I’m no book scientist, but for our purposes, let’s just say a book is “a self-contained, portable, non-reference collection of writing“. So, the heroic song of Norb the Mammoth Slayer – nope; part of a message from General Zorg to King Bargnok – nope; the entire history of the Ziphlepaph Empire written on a temple wall – nope; a few clay tablets of October’s fish sales written in cuneiform – nope. However, Norb the Mammoth Slayer written on tanned bear hide with red ochre (or blood, whatever) – yep; the collected and bound (with sloth sinew – because they’re easy to catch) messages of Zorg and Bargnok from the 3rd Battle of Plondo Bridge – yep; the history of Ziphlepaph written on scrolls – yep; “How to Boost Your Fish Biz in X Easy Steps” cuneiform’d on clay tablets – sure. I’d say those are all books, in a general sense.
Anyway, here are the ones you can actually go down to a store, buy and read. This is as close as us standard-issue book fiends can get to those first writers who sat down at their writing slabs (after a morning of procrastinating with busy work) and started scribbling words with a purpose. 1000 years from now, this list will look different, so get in touch with these ancient folk while you still can.
The Teachings of Ptahhotep – 25th century BCE – This one is barely in print, and so barely makes this list. It’s a collection of maxims from the Egyptian vizier Ptahhotep, along the lines of the Analects or Proverbs. You’ll have to hunt around to get a proper copy of it, OR you can pick up one of those crappy reprints on-line. Anyway, it’s pretty damn old. Here’s a pertinent gem: “Those who break the law must be punished – something the greedy fail to understand. Wrong-doers can achieve material gain, but evil never leads to good. It is wrong to say: ‘I want only to take things to enrich myself,’: rather than ‘I want my actions to benefit the position entrusted to me.'” Word.
Sumerian Temple Hymns (Enhedanna’s collection of hymns to Inanna) – 23rd century BCE – Enhedanna was a priestess (and daughter of mighty Sargon, remember him? First Sumerian dynasty? Ruled the known world? No?) who wrote and collected 42 songs to her goddess, Inanna. She shared them all over Sumer, and they were canon for hundreds of years. It’s kinda sorta a chapbook, I guess. You could make a good case that she is the earliest known literary author. Okay, this one might not be sitting on your local bookstore shelf at this moment, but you can definitely get a version of it pretty easily.
Gilgamesh – 21st century BCE – Man, if you have not read this, please PLEASE do – it’s so good. It’s not long, and though it is ancient, it is not obscure. It feels completely human and even modern. There are a few variations, but it is basically the story of a king (Gilgamesh) and his sasquatch-like friend (Enkidu) who stops him from being an asshole. Then Enkidu dies and King G has to figure out the meaning of life. There are monsters, adventures and the precursors of a few biblical stories. (It’s been translated into Klingon. That’s how good it is.)
The Egyptian Book of the Dead – 15th century BCE – This is an odd one, and there was no single version of it. Personalized collections of spells and highly detailed information were made for a dying individual, based on their life, providing what they specifically would need in the afterlife. One would have to know the names of various gods – and even of bizarrely mundane objects – almost like passwords. It sounds both fascinating and boring. Eventually, the book became a little more standardized. Now you can get it anywhere books are sold, whether or not you’re dying. But it won’t be personalized.
(Okay, I’m skipping a few things, because the Akkadians, Egyptians and Sumerians (who might just be fancy Akkadians – it’s hard to tell) are hogging all this early material. I wanna branch out a little.)
(Also, I know I know – Rig Veda should kinda be in here, but you know what? It wasn’t written down until much later, so tough cookies- this is about books not oral traditions, mighty though the Rig Veda certainly is. Shoulda got yourself written down, RV.)
The Book of Job – 6th century BCE – It’s kinda cheating to say “The Bible”, since the Bible is really a library of books. So, let’s pick the oldest part of the Bible. Job seems like an awful story: God and the Devil make a sort of bet that no matter what the Devil does to Job, he will not curse God. Except, that’s not what the book is. It’s closer to a philosophical dialogue with questions like “Why do good things happen to bad people?” and “What is the meaning of suffering?” Job’s friends represent different ways to deal with suffering, and – in the end – even righteous Job doesn’t quite get it right. There are no easy answers, but there’s a heck of a lot to chew on. That’s why this book has lasted so long; that’s why it’s… you know… in the Bible.
I Ching or Book of Changes – 9th century BCE – One of the 5 classic texts of ancient China, the I Ching is, of course, super famous. How exactly you should use it is debated, but it’s more or less a divination tool. A set of random numbers are generated thru various means (10-sided die may or may not work) and their meaning is then looked up in the book. Interpretation ensues. And that is certainly a very shallow description of this highly significant work.
Book of Songs – 6th century BCE – Sometimes attributed to Confucius but possibly older, this is the compilation of ancient Chinese poetry. It includes everything from rural topics and love songs to pieces in praise of the emperor. It was a fundamental part of education, and another one of the 5 standard texts connected to Confucius. Also, if you’ve never looked at The Analects, please do so.
Hesiod the Greek poet (7th century BCE) has a few surviving works, often combined now: Theogony and Works & Days – Homer might be the obvious choice here, but they were contemporaries, so let’s go with the also-ran. Theogony is a retelling of Greek myths and the origins of the world. Works & Days is about work ethics, justice, cultural commentary and the like.
The Oldest Book in “English”
Beowulf (7th – 10th century CE) might have Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (9th century CE) beat or it might not; it depends on how it is dated. So, take your pick. Beowulf is about fighting monsters with your bare hands. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a running record and commentary on the history of England from Romans to Normans. What makes it really interesting is that it was added to by different monks at different monasteries (they each had their own copy), and in at least one of them, you can see the language starting to shift from Old English to Middle English. But no monsters. There are lots of versions of Beowulf. It’s prob easiest to find the Tolkien (good for its notes) and the Seamus Heaney (who better to translate a poem but a poet?) We even used to sell Beowulf t-shirts. I got the last one.
The Oldest Novel
Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) – 11th century CE – Widely considered the first novel, this epic Japanese story follows the amorous misadventures of Genji as he works his way through the politics of the royal court. I love Japanese lit, but I’ve avoided this one for many years. I plan on continuing to avoid it, as it sounds terribly dull. On the other hand, it has been around for a thousand years, so it probably does not suck.
Again, this list is bogus in that none of these is really the oldest book. Whatever that one book was, say How Shitteth a Brontosaurus in Ye Olde Woods? or maybe Pangea Breakup: An Inconvenient Truth, it is lost to us forever. But these are all not only survivors of history’s book-burning chowderheads and the insidious ravages of bad luck, but they’re totally accessible right now. You could put any of these in your hands today — which is pretty cool, considering how far they’ve traveled.