The Dawn of Print
Has the death of the ‘physical’ book been exaggerated?
Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By JAMES BOWMAN
It’s had a great five-hundred-year run . . . but it’s time to change.
The Gutenberg Museum, Mainz
So Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com 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.
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
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.
No wonder, then, that the new technology of its time also foreshadowed the Internet in breeding skeptics and doomsayers. Here’s Filippo de Strata, a Benedictine monk, urging the Doge of Venice in 1473 to ban the printing press in the Venetian Republic, where its growth and influence had already been phenomenal:
He’s got us there too, I’m afraid; but now as then there’s no looking back. If in some sense culture has declined with the advent of printing—Plato, of course, thought that writing itself was destructive of memory, the mother of the Muses—science has advanced. Pettegree tells us, for instance, that the related invention of new means of illustration was crucial to the development of scientific method and technique: “The development of the technical woodcut had important consequences, both philosophical and practical,” he writes, because it “helped tip the balance of scholarly investigation towards a science of investigation” and away from the authority of the ancients, though these (especially Aristotle) in their magic, hand-copied codices remained strong for some time yet to come. Early German leadership in science, especially botany, therefore had its origins in the German expertise in the technique of woodcut. Also, with printing came globes, which forced a greater precision in geography.
Professor Pettegree does not mention what to me seems an equally far-reaching cultural consequence of the printing press; namely, its contribution to the birth of Cervantean irony and mock-epic out of the democratization of courtly romance. That ironic approach to the heroic is now and has long been the norm, and must be at least partly the result of the sudden availability of many more nonironic romances to stock Don Quixote’s library than had ever been available to him and his kind before.
We have seen a further development of the same cultural tradition in a similar cultural shift of our own time with the birth of camp and its contemporary offspring, postmodernism. In both cases, an elite audience for the new, more democratic and egalitarian art forms—popular romance in the first instance, film in the second—found a way to make itself superior to the less self-conscious consumers of the new forms as a condition of their acceptance.
The Pettegreean account of the last complete revolution in information management systems has only been made possible by its successor, the most recent such revolution. And its account of that earlier revolution also makes clear that it effected a similar revolution in culture to that which began in the late 20th century with the invention of the microchip. That is to say, both revolutions not only brought about a change in the way information was stored and retrieved, and the efficiency of both operations, but also produced a revolution in the way that people lived and thought about the world. The nature of that revolution is beginning to be a little clearer in the case of the electronic information systems with which we have lately grown so familiar, though I count it interesting that some of the most enthusiastic missionaries for the new systems, like Steven Pinker, are trying to deny this.
In his Note on Sources at the end of this volume, Pettegree writes:
Maybe the ultimate effect of the electronic revolution will be to create huge mines of information into which—even (or perhaps especially) when they contain as many riches as Pettegree’s book—fewer and fewer people will ever be inclined to venture.
James Bowman, the author of Honor, A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.