The Magazine

The Dawn of Print

Has the death of the ‘physical’ book been exaggerated?

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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It’s had a great five-hundred-year run .  .  . but it’s time to change.

Photo of The Gutenberg Museum in Mainz

The Gutenberg Museum, Mainz


So Jeff Bezos of has said of what he quaintly calls the “physical book.” Of course, since his own company’s Kindle is one of several electronic competitors to the physical book now on the market, he has a vested interest in heralding the latter’s obsolescence. Yet few anymore would want simply to dismiss the notion. Last year, Amazon’s sales of ebooks overtook those of the ink-and-paper kind, which seems like a portent if anything does.

But a portent of what? Last year John Naughton of the Observer asked readers to imagine themselves to be burghers of Mainz in 1472, 17 years after the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, who are asked by an anachronistic pollster to rate on a scale of one to five (five being the most likely and one being the least) the probabilities that the newfangled printed book would

n Undermine the authority of the Catholic church.

n Power the Reformation.

n Enable the rise of modern science.

n Create entirely new social classes and professions.

n Change our conceptions of “childhood” as a protected early period in a person’s life.

It’s safe to say that not many fives would have been given out.

We are now, or were at the time Naughton wrote, 17 years away from the general availability of the Internet, and equally clueless about what its long-range effects will be. That makes it a good time for Andrew Pettegree’s immensely learned book (new Kindle electronic version now available) to remind us where books came from before they disappear from their usual haunts, and libraries, when they continue to exist at all, become even more museum-like than they already are.

Among other things, Pettegree, a professor in the School of History and head of the Reformation Studies Institute at the University of St. Andrews, reminds us that the invention of printing was not the first technological innovation with profound effects for intellectual life. The transition from scroll to codex in the early Middle Ages was as important in its way as that from manuscript to print in the late Middle Ages. Likewise, the use of parchment (that is, animal skins) rather than papyrus was essential to the preservation of learning. He also provides chapter and verse for Naughton’s contention about the printing press’s having “powered” the Reformation.

In 1522, Duke George, ruler of Ducal Saxony, decided definitely against the Reformation, and prohibited the production or sale of Lutheran texts in his territories. For the publishers of Leipzig this was a dreadful blow. In 1524 a deputation petitioned the Duke, asking to be allowed to publish Luther’s writings once again. The books they were now required to print, written by Luther’s Catholic opponents, were simply unsaleable, they claimed. Figures for the production of books in Leipzig support their complaints. Between 1515 and 1522 over 1,100 editions were published in Leipzig, an average of 140 titles a year. Following the ban on publishing Lutheran works this fell precipitously, to 43 titles in 1523 and 25 in 1524. To add insult to injury these were the years when printing in Germany reached its zenith, a previously unimaginable output of almost 1,500 editions per year. There was no doubt that Leipzig’s printers breathed a sigh of relief when, following the conversion of the Duchy to Lutheranism after the death of Duke George they were able to resume publishing Protestant works.

This suggests something else about the Reformation itself, which must have been driven forward as much by its identification with modernity and (therefore) fashion as it was by the popular passion for its more democratic and antiauthoritarian elements or for “the priesthood of
all believers.”

Then, as now, “extremism” sold, which might be something to bear in mind when next you hear the moderate complaints about the polarization of political discourse on the Internet. Luther and Calvin were, of course, bestsellers in their day. On the other hand, Pettegree notes a couple of hundred pages later that Emond Auger managed to stem the Protestant tide in Lyon in 1561, and effect the expulsion from that city of its Calvinist preachers, partly by providing the city’s printers with a rival income stream in the form of his own plethora of Roman Catholic sermons and tracts which, with the generation of the Counter-Reformation to work on their appeal, were presumably more lively and readable (and themselves “extreme”) than those of the Catholic divines of Leipzig 40 years earlier.