Sunday, October 4, 2009


Gutenberg: How One Man Remade The World With WordsBy John Man
MJF Books; $24.95, cloth
ISBN 978-1-56731-743-5

Oh, the things one can find in the remainders section of the local chain bookstore!

Can one really remake the world with words? This past summer, we heard how one man remade the world, allegedly, with music—Michael Jackson. Walter Cronkite remade the world of journalism with his work for CBS. Marlon Brando, Normal Mailer, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Pope John Paul II—pick a subject and one can find a pioneer, a king of pop, the greatest writer, artist, financier, technology guru of his or her generation. Hyperbole goes hand in hand with death. Upon the funeral pyre, we heap the praise, but history may not be so caught up in the hysteria.

Shakespeare, Dante, Homer—now we are getting close to the immortals. If one’s work is still around after half of millennium, we can conclude that the writer, artist, actor is a revolutionary.

In the list of revolutionaries, we must include Johann Gutenberg, and it is most important that we single him out now, when every talking head on the news channels, in books, magazines, and think tanks proclaims the death of the written word. Just last week, we heard how electronic reading devices might soon include snippets of video and pictures mixed in with text. Books are dead, we are told; “dead tree media” is so yesterday.

“In the beginning was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God,” begins the Gospel of John. To a writer, equating the Word with God is a no-brainer. In the hierarchy of saints, we must include Gutenberg, the inventor of moveable type, the creator of the modern book. Those of us who love the written word, worship the smell of leather binding, glue, and paper, cannot get enough of the biblio-mania, we commit the sin of idolatry when it comes to Gutenberg.

So it was that in browsing the bargain bin I came across John Man’s biography of the man who remade the world with words. Like Shakespeare and his biographers, Man must piece together Gutenberg’s life from fragments of documentation and legal paperwork. He is forced to fall back on speculation at times, but he manages to give us a picture of the man himself, and more importantly, the times in which he lived.

The invention of moveable type—the printing press, which was based on the process used to create coins—occurred 550 years ago, about a century before Shakespeare waltzed his way across the Elizabethan stage. This was the English Renaissance, a time of explosions in humanistic rejuvenation, an orgasm of art and culture. According to Man, in the space of a single year, published books went from taking two months to produce a single copy, to a production schedule of 500 copies in a week. In 1455, all of the published books in Europe could be carried in a single, horse-drawn wagon. Fifty years later, 10,000 plus titles overwhelmed the shelves. Today, we publish “10,000 million a year,” according to Man.

In his story of the age of Gutenberg, Man also includes some neat historical detail. He explains how the Bubonic Plague was spread by marmots and fleas, and how in the lungs, the disease was ninety percent fatal and one hundred percent deadly in the bloodstream. He tells us that Mongols threw plague victims’ bodies over the walls of Italian cities to infest the populace and make them easier to conquer.

Gutenberg actually based his invention on a number of other developments in printing. In fact, Man tells us, if Gutenberg had not invented the press, somebody else would have, and there is the possibility that someone did beat him to the punch, but Gutenberg gets the credit in history. The real story is that he had three partners—Hans Riff, Andreas Dritzehn, and Andreas Heilmann—and the invention forced Gutenberg into litigation and legal wrangling to control the explosion that followed.

Leading up to the printing press, thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa were writing and producing works of political thought and philosophy. Books were in demand, and the only way to make copies was by hand. The Brothers of the Quill, a group of laymen who printed and copied early manuscripts, worked in concert with the monks and religious figures who labored night and day to produce the Bibles, prayer books, and devotional texts that the Church and other organizations demanded. The first public library originated in Florence, Italy in 1441, according to Man, and the fires of man’s quest for knowledge engulfed all of Europe.

The details of the press are fascinating. Man presents a flow chart explaining the process from metal punch to hand mould to type to forme and press. Ink, he tells us, was composed of vermilion crystals once believed to be the blood of dragons, and the intensely blue stone lapis lazuli.

Gutenberg’s most well-known printing was the Bible. Twelve copies of the edition on vellum survive today out of thirty or thirty-five originally printed. He also printed some 150 paper copies of which thirty-nine survive. Gutenberg was obsessed with quality control, and Man tells us this obsession bordered on “the fringes of sanity.” Margin justifications, indentions, hyphens and punctuation, all had to be worked out in minute detail in advance, and in some cases, Man tells us, the average reader would not have noticed this detail. Gutenberg simply “yearned for perfection, not only because this was the culmination of his life’s work, but also because only perfection beyond the reach of any mortal scribe would persuade a prince or archbishop to buy.”

Man includes appendices in his book that explain the economics of printing. We see balance sheets for his business. He also lists the printers down through the ages who capitalized on Gutenberg’s work. Of course, he adds an extensive bibliography for further reading.

The book is an interesting read, especially for those who love the book. This is the meat of bibliographic history. I simply marveled at the staying power of Gutenberg’s technology. When we hear talk of disappearing books, newspapers, all kinds of printed matter to be replaced by electronics, diodes, digitalized content, I am skeptical. The book has existed for at least a millennium in one form or another—papyrus, parchment, animal skins, paper, hand-copied, printed on a press, cloth binding, and paperback. I am convinced such longevity of the printed word will not be so easily preempted. We may do more reading on our Kindles, Sony Readers, and the internet, but the weight and heft of the book, that marvel of old school, dead tree technology, will not be so casually vanquished. Come what may, for most of us lovers, the book is still the king.

Additions: I want to express my appreciation for those who have recently added themselves to the list of followers for this blog, including Shantello, Jamie Mitchell, Troy.Holm, Amanda, Tim Wilkins, NEFrost, and DWalls31. The appreciation is long overdue.
And of course, there is the man who was there from nearly the start: William Michaelian, hero and dragon-slayer.
Thanks to all for reading my words.


  1. And here I was, reading along innocently enough, taking delight in the subject of this entry and in your writing about it, and then pleased to see the names of others who have found you and come to appreciate your fine blog, as I do, and then — well, I thought the hyperbole was supposed to come after I’m dead! Even funnier is that I’m in the midst of planning several new print titles. Just bought a new axe, in fact....

    Paul, thanks for all the work you do — here, and in the classroom.

  2. Yes, William, I have now outed you. Dust off the tights and cape, and prepare to keep the world safe for democracy.

    Beware evildoers, wherever you are!!


  3. Yes, no replacing books for some of us! (I hope that there are some new young replacements for us coming along though!)

    I love those small pocket-sized hardbacks that the British, especially, used to print, such as the Oxford World's Classics Series. Grab one and take it in your coat pocket. I was dipping into the Canterbury Tales that way this week, and for the first time wondered who--in those pre-Gutenberg days--his audience was. Did people listen to someone read these fairly long rhyming tales? Wikipedia informs me that 83 copies of this work exist in manuscript, hand-copied, and that his audience included both the nobility and the new middle class. So evidently hand-copying did get a lot of copies into people's hands; think of the work involved! For some reason I always envisioned the monks & copyists toiling slowly away at devotional texts, not anything current that people were actually waiting eagerly to read!

  4. Oh, would I love to get a hold of a hand-copied Canterbury Tales! Actually, with all the doom and gloom predicted for the printed word, there might come a day fairly soon when all books will be collector's items. There is no substitute for a book in one's hand. End of story.

    Thanks for the comment,

  5. How did Guttenberg get ahold of the bible he coppied from ?
    Was it legally obtained ?
    That it was a stolen manuscript from the Church/Vatican.
    Is there any truth to the tale of the Catholic Church trying to 'Hunt Down" the blasphemers that were translating and printing this book ?

  6. Those days were kind of the "wild west" of copyrights and patents. Gutenberg copied his Bible from the handwritten copies that were prevalent at the time. There is much controversy surrounding who actually printed the Bible first. As with other emerging technology, documentation is difficult from the time period. And yes, the Catholic Church did have a problem with the printed word. The press made those poor monks slaving their lives away making script copies obsolete.

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. " the Catholic Church did have a problem with the printed word. The press made those poor monks slaving their lives away making script copies obsolete."

    Not to mention the intellectual uprisings resulting from widespread distribution of the Gospel, with some editions shockingly produced in the vernacular, so that the rabble could read it for themselves! If the Church could have strangled Gutenberg in the cradle...

  8. It would not be the first or last time the Catholic Church tried to stifle scientific, philosophical, or even common sense thinking, would it? Galileo is still turning over in his grave...


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