Friday, March 24, 2017

A celebration of printing

New technologies always give rise to new cultural anxieties.
Andrew Root, Christianity Today (March 2017)

Once we have found the secret to the letters, there will be no need for scribes.
Alix Christie, Gutenberg's Apprentice

Most of us have, several times in our own lifetimes, seen how new technologies have produced radical cultural change and, therefore, new cultural anxieties. Consider the impact of the computer and the cell phone. Those even older remember how television and air conditioning altered their lives. What we don't often think about is how, even several centuries ago, the same phenomenon took place: Technology brought change and, with it, anxiety.

We know before we open Alix Christie's 2014 novel Gutenberg's Apprentice how it will turn out: Johann Gutenberg is going to print a Bible using movable type. Before 1450, Bibles and every other kind of book had to be copied by hand by scribes, a long process that meant every book was precious but also that there were very few books and little reason for most people to learn how to read. So whatever tension and drama the novel contains has to do with how the printing press will change the known world. How will the church accept it? How will the aristocracy accept it? Will his press make Gutenberg rich or put him in prison?

Christie sticks close to the facts, adding details, conversations and minor characters. Her focus is not on Gutenberg but Peter Schoeffer, a young man trained as a scribe and ready to begin a career copying sacred books. Then his foster father, Johann Fust, convinces him to become Gutenberg's apprentice. Fust has invested money in Gutenberg's idea for a printing press, and he wants Peter both to keep an eye on his investment and get in on the ground floor of what could be an important new technology. It is he who tells Peter, "Once we have found the secret to the letters, there will be no need for scribes."

So while Gutenberg is the driving force of the project and Fust bankrolls it, Peter eventually becomes committed to the idea and contributes many of the innovations that make it successful (even though Gutenberg later claims he did it all by himself). Meanwhile there is the constant threat of interference from church leaders, as well as Peter's on-again, off-again romance with a young woman who isn't so sure God wants his Bible to be reproduced by machine.

Christie had never written a novel before, but she is a professional printer, which gives her a unique appreciation for what Gutenberg and Schoeffer went through. And her novel, published by Harper, may not be Gutenberg's Bible, but it nevertheless is a wonderful piece of printing in itself. Few novels are as physically beautiful as this one.

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