The Gutenberg Revolution by John Man

Suzie Eisfelder

If you’re a reader you’ve probably heard of Johannes Gutenberg, the father of printing. He was the first person to invent a moveable-type printing press. In order for a printing press of this calibre to come into being a number of other things had to be invented. These include adjustable molds, mechanical movable type and the use of oil-based inks for printing books. He also took the idea of a screw press used in agriculture and changed that to work with words and create books. So many different changes in such a short time, Gutenberg was in his 70s or early 80s when he died.

So many things have sprung from books that are cheaper and more easily duplicated than before. All of a sudden education is a lot easier and more people learn to read and write. Ideas can be more easily committed to a printing press and from there to many, many other people. After they’ve read these ideas they can then have their own revelations and make their own discoveries.

I loved this book, but it wasn’t long enough and there wasn’t nearly enough detail for me. Although the problem with the detail is mostly because Gutenberg managed to work under the radar for various parts of his life. Some of what we know is because Gutenberg was sued by one of his backers. He borrowed much money to finance his printing press and when he didn’t pay the money back he was sued. John Man has managed to read the court records and pieced some bits together.

One of the pieces of detail that was almost enough for me was about the type faces. Because this was the beginning of printing everything needed to be made by hand, even each letter of the type face. So for every page of the Bible there would have been well over one hundred letters to be hand carved. Man goes into some detail as to how these letters might have been produced. I’d need to see someone working through the process in real life or on video to have enough detail for me. I don’t know why I’m making a fuss about not enough detail in the book.

This all happened in Germany. But it was when I read about the person to bring a printing press to England my brain went awry and I had to read those pages twice. William Caxton was in Bruges looking after British trading interests in 1462. He was translating some legends about Troy but figured there was no chance of selling it, England was in the middle of the Wars of the Roses. When he was summoned to the Burgundian court he was asked to show his translations to Margaret of York, sister of King Edward IV. She offered some corrections and commissioned him to complete it. Why he moved to Cologne to do this work is not explained, but it was in Cologne that he heard of the printing press. He hired someone to teach him how it all worked, hired an assistant, Wynkyn de Worde, and moved back to London by 1476. Here is where I find myself going back to Terry Pratchett. He wrote a book called The Truth. It’s partly about the rise of a printing press and a newsletter. The main character is called William de Worde. Essentially, he’s combined William Caxton and Wynkyn de Word into one name and made him a newspaper man. The printer in The Truth is called Mr Goodmountain, he’s a dwarf. The German translation of Goodmountain is Gutenberg. I just keep asking ‘how much did Terry Pratchett know?’

Anyway, there’s a lot of speculation among the facts in this book. I don’t mind because Man has stated when he’s speculating and when he’s got actual facts. It’s a great book and it’s staying on my shelf. If you want your own you’ll have to buy it yourself, here’s a link in case you want to click through and make me happy. Thank you to all those who have clicked in the past few weeks, the numbers are very nice.

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