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How Many Books Have Ever Been Published?

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When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, he couldn’t have foreseen how his humble creation would eventually lead to a global industry churning out millions of books each year. In the centuries since, new books continue getting published while old books pile up so that the total number of books that exist would be inconceivable to a man who placed every letter by hand. While counting up all the actual individual texts populating bookstores, public libraries, and private collections throughout the world would be a Sisyphean task, there might be a way to at least approximate how many unique book titles have ever been published.

Trying to determine how many books there are first raises a deceptively simple question: What is a book, anyway? That can get deeply philosophical very quickly, and there’s no single answer to it. The team behind Google Books (whose ambitious goal is to digitize all printed material, allowing unprecedented access to the world’s knowledge in a single database) came up with their own definition in 2010, in an attempt to answer this thorny query: What they refer to as a “tome” comprises an “idealized bound volume,” covering the range from a bestselling novel with copies available at every airport newsstand to a rare, leather-bound out-of-print edition to a single catalogued manuscript of someone’s PhD dissertation going quietly unread in a university collection.

On its surface, this definition replicates the concept underlying International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN), the universal identifiers for all books in the commercial marketplace. However, ISBNs have only existed since the mid-1960s and have yet to be widely adopted in non-Western regions of the world, so relying solely on that single number omits vast portions of printed material. Even when they are used, the process of assigning ISBNs isn’t particularly rigorous, so plenty of “book-like objects” that are definitely not books come with an ISBN: audiobooks, instructional DVDs, flash cards, etc. Relying solely on ISBNs to determine the number of published books offers a murky, unsatisfying answer.

Other institutions have attempted to standardize their comprehensive book catalogs, among them WorldCat and the Library of Congress, but these numbers are even more likely to be assigned in multiples to the same titles due to different cataloguing rules. Simple titles, author names, and publishing companies are less reliable still, as human error in transcribing all that information into a database can also lead to duplicates.

The success of Google Books’s attempt at solving this problem takes into account all these various shortcomings, and uses them to cross-reference nearly a billion raw records from 150 distinct providers to narrow down the number to just one of each book. After weeding out all the assumed duplicates, there are still certain non-book entries that need to be discarded, including two million videos, two million maps, and a turkey probe that was once added to a library card catalog as an April Fools' Day joke. All told, Google Books came up with—drumroll, please!—129,864,880 books total. Phew.

But wait, there’s more! Despite Google’s best efforts, their algorithm fails to account for certain crucial factors: Not only is their calculation outdated, having been tallied in 2010, but it predates the recent surge in self-publishing, especially in digital formats. Though ISBNs are recommended for all titles, they are not required for self-published works carried in most e-book marketplaces, and there is no reliable system for keeping track of them otherwise. As the popularity of self-publishing increases, with nearly half a million new titles released in 2013 alone, the Google Books algorithm only gets further from reality.

Until Google updates its methodology, we can at least do a little extrapolation with the data we have to figure out a more accurate number of published books in existence in 2016. It’s a moving target, relies on unreliable ISBNs, and will require some educated guessing along the way, but here it goes anyway.

According to Bowker, the organization responsible for keeping track of all newly assigned ISBNs in the United States, the years 2011 to 2013 saw the publication of nearly one million new titles (and maybe a few reprints). A U.S. Industry and Trade Outlook statistic indicates that the United States produces about 40 percent of the world’s printed material; if it would be fair to assume that the U.S. is responsible for a similar percentage of non-printed text, it becomes possible to estimate a figure for total global book production, which comes out to about 2,267,265 new books published worldwide from 2011 to 2013.

More recent data is hard to come by, so the best way of filling in the gap between 2013 and now may be to average book production over the last three years (755,755 new titles annually worldwide) and add that to the 2013 total. After some basic arithmetic, it seems that a low threshold for the number of unique books in existence as of halfway through 2016 is (another drumroll, please) 134,021,533 total. And that’s all she wrote—for now, anyway.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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