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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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:

This is what the printing presses do: they corrupt susceptible hearts. The silly asses do not see this, and brutes rejoice in the fraudulent title of teachers, exalting themselves with a song like this (be so good as to listen): “O good citizen, rejoice: your city is well stuffed with books. For a small sum, men turn themselves into doctors in three years. Let thanks be rendered to the printers!” Any uncultured person without Latin bawls these things.

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:

Ironically, it has been the next great information revolution—the Internet—that has allowed this work on the first age of print to be pursued to a successful conclusion. The steady development of online library catalogues in the last twenty years has allowed scholars to draw together data from a mass of libraries around the world to create a master list of editions for each part of Europe—and hence for the whole of the first era of print. This also records, for the benefit of users, where all these often very rare books are to be found. The result is a total repertory of around 350,000 editions, and some 1.5 million surviving copies.

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.