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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Gutenberg: How One Man Remade The World With Words



The invention of writing was amazing.  Developing an alphabet and a uniform set of rules to govern a language is also amazing.  But when mass printing with movable type became available some 550 years ago it was nothing short of revolutionary, much the way the Internet these past 20-25 years has forever altered how the world communicates and conducts life. I came across a 2002 book by John Man, Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade The World with Words, and it manages to rekindle the significance of what took place when Germany’s Johann Gutenberg, invented movable type printing presses.

He singlehandedly ignited an explosion of art, literature, and scientific research. The book’s back cover sums up the book perfectly:  “In Gutenberg, you’ll meet the genius who fostered this revolution, discover the surprising ambitions that drove him, and learn how a single obscure artisan changed the course of history.”

Just before he printed his first book, The Gutenberg Bible, in 1454 or so, Europe’s books were hand-copied and all existing copies of books probably didn’t equal what a modern public library holds.  But by the debut of the 16th century, the number of printed copies of books exceeded millions of units.  This single artisan changed the course of history.

Man notes that “Printing changed things so utterly that it is hard to imagine a world without it…The result, of course, was a new world of communication.  Suddenly, in a historical eye blink scribes were redundant.  One year, it took a month or two to produce a single copy of a book; the next, you could have 500 copies in a week (500 was an average print run in the early days).”

Books hold great thoughts, most borrowed and some original.  They are perfectly suited to provide an examination of all of life, or more aptly, a tiny sliver of life in a snapshot of time.  Who knows what Gutenberg envisioned when he created his printing press but he launched something spectacular that reverberates today.

He unleashed an explosion of information sharing, which expedited the advancement of all things, from science and medicine to politics and philosophy.  Think about it.  Literacy rates were very low 550 years ago but even amongst the literate, information flowed slowly, with bias and limitation.   Once books became accessible to those who were not part of the wealthy or elite class, a democracy of ideas was able to develop.  Information would beget more information.  Debates and dialogues would ensue.  From books, came great discoveries and movements and a reformation in the way all aspects of life were carried out.

Man writes glowingly of the lasting significance of the invention:  “Gutenberg’s invention had created the possibility of an intellectual genome, a basis of knowledge which could be passed on from generation to generation, finding expression in individual books, as the human genome is expressed in you and me, itself remaining untouched, a river of knowledge into which every new generation could tap and to which it would add, even after the last press ceases, and paper is no more, and all the vast store of accumulated knowledge is gathered in hyberspace.”

However one thing that didn’t change with the advent of mass printing was the habit of censorship and banning.  Man writes how the Church, all powerful five-six centuries ago, spent considerable effort to make sure certain books went unread, though such efforts also backfired and created heroes of those it scorned:

“If some works needed to be published, others certainly didn’t – a view that inspired the response that has won the Church its most scathing condemnation from non-Catholics: its attempt to control the press by banning those works of which it disapproved.

“The Church had always claimed the right to approve or disapprove of books, and there had been occasional bannings, easy to impose by the Inquisition when monks produced the books for other monks.  But the advent of printing raised the stakes, and the coming of Reformation raised them higher still.  In 1542, Pope Paul III set up a local branch of the Inquisition, as opposed to its fearsome Spanish counterpart, to counteract the Reformation, which it did by initiating a reign of terror that Spanish inquisitors must have envied.  One of its functions was to condemn heretical books, a task paralleled in France by the Sorbonne, which published its own list of banned books. The Council of Trent (1545-63), called to retrench after the Protestant defection, established a centralized list of books that existed thanks to that accursed invention, printing – a list that, thanks to that accursed invention, printing, could be distributed across the world of the faithful.  Published first in 1559, the list grew year by year, and so did its malign reputation.

“Actually, it was not all malign, because the Index Librorum Prohibitorum proclaimed what was new and interesting, and acted as good advertising for Protestant publishers.  Banning never really worked:  in France the official bookseller Jean Andre printed both the Index and the work of the banned heretic poet Clement Marot.  Being banned was a sort of recommendation.  Those on the Index in the early days included Peter Abelard, Lefevre d’Etaples (the first translator of the Bible into French), Boccaccio, Calvin, Dante, Erasmus, Rabelais and, of course, Luther.  Eventually, there would be 4,000 books one the Index by the time it was disbanded in 1966.”

What would Gutenberg think about the Internet?


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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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