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Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Short History of the Printed Word


The history of printing pre-dates Johann Gutenberg but few know the details of how printing came to be. I came upon a 1999 book that gives insight about how printing came to be, A Short history of the Printed Word, 2nd Edition by Warren Chappel and Robert Bringhurst. It makes clear the evolution, development, and significance of the printed word.

"The lucid and lively narrative is interspersed with more than 200 illustrations of calligraphy, typefaces, and pages from the greatest books ever printed, as well as presses and workshops," asserts the back cover copy. "The authors take the reader through the evolution of the printing press.  They explore the contributions of the great printers and typographers, from Gutenberg to Goudy, and investigate the complex interaction between the creation of moveable type and the societies it reflected and influenced."

I leave you with selected excerpts that are of particular interest to me:

A Millennium Of Printing
For nearly ten centuries, typographic printing has been a force of immense importance.  By typographic printing I mean impressions from master sets of characters accurately composed into words, lines and pages.  Such printing has been the tool of learning, the preserver of knowledge and the medium of literature.  Until the electronic age, it was the great means of communication over distances in space.  It remains the greatest means of communication across time.  The press has also become and remained a symbol of freedom, defended in Milton’s Areopagitica and protected in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Despite the press’s role in the spread of commercial propaganda and other forms of information pollution, and its widespread use for the manufacture of mass opinion in place of individual thought, freedom of the press remains a vital fact or aspiration in most societies of the world.

Apart from its importance as a means of communication, printing has had, and continues to have, an impressive life as an art and craft. On the lowest level there is a childlike pleasure to be derived from stamping and duplicating, not greatly removed from the delight of making mud pies. On the highest level – that of the best composition and presswork – printing affords the artist the many and varied satisfactions of meaningful texture and form.

Printing Prior to Gutenberg
      Everyone, it seems, has heard of Johann Gutenberg, even if not everyone knows that he was born in Mainz circa 1394 and died in 1468.  Many people know that Gutenberg printed a Bible, and many people know, or think they know, that he invented the process of printing from movable type. In fact, there are many books still in existence that were printed from movable type in China and Korea before Gutenberg was born.

The Benchmarks Of Printing
      What are the benchmarks that can serve as references and guides in tracing the history of printing?  I would put first an understanding of the alphabet, and an appreciation of its practical as well as its aesthetic aspects. Second, a regard for the sculptural nature of type as it was produced first in eleventh-century China and then by European punchcutters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As the third and fourth benchmarks I would suggest awareness of the arrangement of type and the actual impression from it.  These four together determine the form and texture of a piece of printing, and are outside the time flow of people, places, events, developments and dates. It is possible to put the best piece of contemporary printing beside a page of the Gutenberg Bible, and to compare the two without asking the slightest concession for the older piece, on either aesthetic or technical grounds, though it was made 550 years ago. The best of the old books, like the best of the old paintings, are that good.

Digital Vs. Print
      It is possible that printed books as repositories of human experience and creativity may in time be overshadowed or even replaced by digital replicas.  Once made, such replicas are very quickly copied and easily stored in a small space – but they cannot be read without a prosthesis. They are invisible and useless without the intervention of an exceedingly complex, electrically powered machine.  Such a scheme may look good to accountants and to marketers.  But for authors and for readers, there can be no substitute for a well-designed, well-printed, well-bound book that one can see and feel as well as read.  A tangible, stable, well-made page is just as desirable, and just as useful, now as it was in the fifteenth century.

Handmade Books
      Most readers nowadays, alas, have never touched nor even seen a book made by hand from handmade materials.  That means most readers have never encountered a book made to be read with the whole sensorium.  The books of trade and academic publishers are as a rule now designed for the eye alone – and often for an inattentive eye that looks no further than the jacket. Trade books that are designed with care and imagination are prone to overdo the visual element, because when books are manufactured by an automated process from machine-made paper, chopped into pages and bound with a strip of glue, the visual is the only element left.  This accounts for a curious paradox:  some of the best-designed trade and academic books of recent years are also some of the worst designed.

The Cultural Importance Of Small Publishers
      In recent years, software engineering has placed typesetting capability – and even typefounding capability – into the hands of any author who desires it. Freedom to publish is also now, in many countries, almost absolute.  Yet in the English-speaking world, the printing, publishing and marketing of books is largely in the hands of a few gigantic firms.  Oddly, these are not firms for whom books and publishing as such are primary interests.  The companies most prominent in publishing are owned by other companies and managed as a consequence by persons whose profession is not publishing but managing. A publisher’s goals are, as a rule, to contribute to the culture by publishing good books, to enjoy the many pleasures of a literary life, and to make a little money in the process.  A manager’s goals, as a rule, are maximum market penetration, maximum market share, and maximum profit. These aims are not quite diametrically opposed, but they are different enough that, through their interaction, the face of publishing has changed.

To publish has traditionally meant – and to most publishers still means – to make public, on the simple understanding that what is openly known and valued has its own life and its own chance for a future.  That is all the immortality culture can provide.  To publish is not to preach, nor even to publicize, though both those things may also be involved.  But when its public spirit is withdrawn, publishing becomes another enterprise and needs another name.


Great books still come from the largest houses, but there is ample proof that publishing, like writing, is done best by those for whom a book is something more than just a marketable product, and by those for whom the beating of the heart and the singing of ideas are sweeter than the sweetest purr of money. As larger publishers have lost their independence, smaller publishers have grown substantially in cultural importance.  Many of the finest trade books issued in North America in the past quarter century have come from very modest operations.

To learn more on how to promote books, read my greatest blog posts from the past five years and 2,000 posts:

2016 Book Marketing & Book Publicity Toolkit

2015 Book Marketing & PR Toolkit

2014 Book Marketing & PR Toolkit

Book Marketing & Book PR Toolkit: 2013


Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2016.

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