The World’s Largest Book

Think of the largest book that you own. Not in terms of pages, but in terms of actual physical size. Chances are for many of you that it’s a large atlas.If you’ve strolled through the reference section at a library, you’ve more than likely seen some monstrous ones that take up entire tables. For many years, the book considered to be the largest in the world was indeed an atlas. The Klencke Atlas was produced in 1660 on the commission of John Maurice of Nassau for presentation to Charles II of England and measures a stunning 175 cm (5 ft 9 in) high. When opened, it folds out to 190 cm (6 ft 3 in). The 39-sheet world atlas has long been in the possession of the British Library, who put it on public display for the first time last year.

It was not until this past decade before the Klencke Atlas was beaten.The first tome to surpass it was Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, a collection of photographs of Bhutan compiled by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Michael Hawley in 2003. Retailing at US$10 000 per copy, each page of Bhutan is 213 cm (7 ft) high and 152 cm (5 ft) wide, and was meant as a display of various digital, photographic, and printing techniques. Bhutan was bested last year by Australian publisher Gordon Cheers’ 200×300 cm (6 ft x9 ft) Earth, a grand version of his 576-page, US$4 000 2008 retail atlas. The supersized Earth took one month alone simply to print and assemble. 31 copies of the giant atlas were produced, retailing for $100 000. And even that book isn’t the official record, for in Brazil in 2007, a publisher produced a Guinness-certified 2.01 m (6 ft 7 in) high, 3.08 m (10 ft 1 in) wide version of the children’s classic The Little Prince.

The key to the record is that those are all ‘published’ books assembled by commercial publishers. A search of Guinness World Records reveals a separate category simply for ‘largest book’, which takes into account one-off efforts. The holder in this case was a book far larger than the supersized Little Prince. The reigning world’s largest book as certified by Guinness was assembled last year in Hungary in a promotional effort for Aggtelek National Park by father and son team Béla and Gábor Varga along with 25 volunteers. At a stupefying 4.18 x 3.77 m (13.71 x 12.36 ft) and 1 420 kg (3 130 lb 9 oz), the 346-page book had to be lowered into its display case at the national park entrance by crane:

But wait again! Those are the largest books by height and width. What about mass? Well, for that, there’s no contest, and it’s none of the books mentioned above. In fact, some would be hard-pressed to even call it a book, since the pages aren’t bound together. Then again, it’s hard to bind pages together when each page is 13-15 cm (5-6 in) thick and made of marble – and there are 730 page leaves .The 1 460 stone pages, 150 x 110 cm (5 x 3.5 ft) each, contain the entire Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhist scriptures, the Tripiṭaka. Placed on display at the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma), the entire collection is known simply as ‘the world’s largest book’.

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A sample page from the world’s largest book at Kuthodaw. Source, Wagaung, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kyauksa.JPG. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 licence.

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Each of the tablets, containing two pages of 80-100 lines each, is housed inside of its own stupa at Kuthodaw. Source: Forlskak, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mandalay_kuthodaw.jpg. Used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

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The 730 leaves, really marble tablets (729 tablets hosting the scriptures, plus another describing the process) are individually on display inside their own stupa, arranged in three concentric squares around the central pagoda, itself encased in gold leaf. The entire pagoda was the project of Mindon Min, the second-to-last king of Burma, founder of the city of Mandalay in 1857. Mindon commissioned numerous projects for his new royal capital, including Kuthodaw Pagoda. Worried that Buddhist teachings may be lost to posterity with the encroachment of the British Empire in the region, Mindon conceived the idea of preserving the Pāli Canon in stone for millennia to come (those of you familiar with the town of Felicity, California are aware of a similar modern idea to preserve worldly knowledge in stone). Employing a barrage of monks as editors, work began on the giant stone book in October 1860 and was finally finished in May 1868. A scribe could finish a tablet in around three days, and a stonemason would take a day to etch 16 lines of script into the stone. The etched script was filled in with gold leaf; gold that indeed was stripped from every single tablet by British troops billeted in the pagoda when the area was invaded in 1885, along with many other precious pagoda items, though the tablets themselves were intact. Over the years, various restoration efforts eventually returned the golf leaf to the marble pages, and today the world’s largest book remains on display for visitors. You can visit Flickr for a gallery of Kuthodaw Pagoda photos.

Further Reading

Agence France-Presse (2010). ‘World’s biggest book’ launched at fair. 6 October 2010. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5htoXqKoxdgrhs6pJZN0vf8cg03yQ?docId=CNG.a011390503465583bd2b96a866cc2135.2d1. Accessed 23 August 2011.

Brown, M. (2010). Largest book in the world goes on show for the first time. The Guardian, 26 January 2010. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jan/26/klencke-atlas-british-library-exhibition. Accessed 23 August 2011.

Collet, M. (n.d.). Myanmar’s Kuthodaw Pagoda: The Largest Book on Earth. Environmental Graffiti. Available at http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/news-amazing-biggest-book-world. Accessed 23 August 2011.

Fletcher, J.S. (2010) .Travel begets travel (Part 18): Excursion to Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay, Myanmar. Examiner.com, 31 October 2010. Available at http://www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-raleigh/travel-begets-travel-part-18-excursion-to-kuthodaw-pagoda-mandalay-myanmar#ixzz1VucCvwWK. Accessed 23 August 2011.

MIT News (2003). MIT’s Michael Hawley creates world’s largest published book. 15 December 2003. Available at http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2003/hawley.html. Accessed 23 August 2011.

Myanmar View (2006).Kuthodaw Pagoda (World’s Largest Book).21 January 2006.Available at http://myanmarview.blogspot.com/2006/01/kuthodaw-pagoda-worlds-largest-book.html.Accessed 23 August 2011.

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