Gutenberg: an idealized image. There was no authentic portrait.


The Third Revolution

On a graph of human contact over the last 5,000 years, the line from grunt to e-mail is not a regular curve. It has four turning-points, each recording moments at which written communication flicked to a new level of speed and outreach. The first was the invention of writing, which allowed for the creation of big, enduring societies, with priestly elites. The second was the invention of the alphabet, which brought writing within the reach of ordinary people from the age of four. The fourth, which seems to be turning us into cells in a planet-sized brain, is the coming of the Internet.

This book is about the third turning-point, caused by the invention of printing with movable type, which burst on Europe, and then the world, 550 years ago. Printing changed things so utterly that it is hard to imagine a world without it. In fact, doing so is a futile exercise, because it would have happened anyway. All the elements needed were present across Europe in the fifteenth century – not just in Germany or in Gutenberg’s home town. What Gutenberg provided was that spark that fused these elements into a novelty. It was an invention waiting to happen.

The result, of course, was a new world of communication. Suddenly, in a historical eye-blink, scribes were redundant. One year, it took a month or two to produce a single copy of a book; the next, you could have 500 copies in a week (500 was an average print run in the early days). Distribution was still by foot or hoof, but that didn’t matter. A copied book just sits there, waiting for readers, one by one; a successful printed book is a stone dropped in water, its message rippling outwards to hundreds, thousands, millions.

Hardly an aspect of life remained untouched. If rulers could bind their subjects better, with taxes and standardised laws, subjects now had a lever with which to organise revolts. Scholars could compare findings, stand on each other’s shoulders and make better and faster sense of the universe. Gutenberg’s invention made the soil from which sprang modern history, science, popular literature, the emergence of the nation-state, so much of everything by which we define modernity.


To see a little of what Gutenberg’s invention led to, take a look inside the international hall at the Frankfurt Book Fair where you will find the American and English publishers and several thousand others from over a hundred countries doing their best to express or inspire interest in 400,000 titles, all created since the previous fair. For tyro publishers, the sight of so much Wurst, coffee, beer and book-jackets is humbling. Authors should keep their illusions and steer clear.

Here is Nick Webb, former publishing MD and now an author, best known for his biography of Douglas Adams*, surfeited on the international hall:

Wheelbarrow Decoration, Deathbed Visions, Realising the Inner Self, books on dinosaurs (still), Vocational Diseases of Professional CooksThe Semiotics of Sneaker Design, novels too numerous to mention (at least 20,000 of them fresh new voices), anthropomorphic cutesie-pie animal character series (known as ‘merch’), pop-ups, flash-card packs, books with music chips, more bloody dinosaurs, Die-Cast Models from 1945 to 1948, The Corrs (in twelve languages), How to be a Millionaire and Remain a Nice Person, How to be a Millionaire by Being a Complete Bastard, The Legacy of the Biro, more novels, many written by pretty teenagers who’ve lived on Ecstasy and Mars bars and are thus highly promotable, Crime Control Strategies in the Modern Mall, The Art of the Afghani Truck, The Art of the Afghani Truck Vol. 2 – The Golden Period, Parmenides – the Rediscovered Genius, Was God a Chair-Leg?, The Pre-Socratics Excluding Parmenides, yet more novels from older authors ‘at the height of their powers’, Salads with Edible Flowers, Porn, Porn with Marmite . . . There is no subject so esoteric, daft, narrow or embarrassing that it does not wearily sustain a book or ten. Oh, yes, a few will be sublime expressions of mankind’s creative genius that will enrich the reader and culture. But God’s teeth, you could heap the remainder into a veritable Alp of dross.

And that is just a single year of English-language titles alone, drawn only from those who make it to that one hall. There are ten halls at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and a dozen other annual book fairs throughout the world. For a previous book on that earlier invention, the alphabet, I worked out the annual weight of published material. In 1455 all Europe’s printed books could have been carried in a single wagon. Fifty years later, the titles ran to tens of thousands, the individual volumes to millions. Today, books pour off presses at the rate of 10,000 million a year. That’s some 50 million tonnes of paper. Add in 8,000 to 9,000 daily newspapers, and the Sundays, and the magazines, and the figure rises to 130 million tonnes.

This is mountainous. It would make a pile 700 metres high – four times the height of the Great Pyramid. Multiply this by the half-millennium of book publishing since Gutenberg’s time, and you have a small mountain range of printed matter. Since most of the increase came in the last century, we could restrict the height of the peaks, but that still leaves us with a hundred pyramids, each of them twice the height of the Great Pyramid. And it goes on: a few years ago it was fashionable to predict the end of the book, but e-publishing has had no impact on the real thing. Ahead lie more and higher peaks of paper.

For historians, the study of this revolution has become an industry, sustaining university departments and museums and researchers and exhibitions and conferences in dozens of cities. The year 2000, supposedly the six-hundredth anniversary of Gutenberg’s birth, inspired an international Fest. In the British Library, Gutenberg was the ‘man of the millennium’, as he was, naturally enough, in his home town of Mainz. But everyone wants a share of Gutenberg. Louisville, Kentucky, has no place in the history of printing, but it insisted on its own Gutenberg exhibition solely because it happens to be twinned with Mainz. Keio University in Japan has taken upon itself to gather all examples of Gutenberg’s greatest work – his Bible – in digital form (the first results are on show in the British Library, revealing individual letters in microscopic detail). Every year, the Gutenberg Society in Mainz produces a collection of learned papers picking over minutiae of the life and the invention.

Yet at the heart of all this Gutenbergiana there still lie mysteries to be explored and stories to be told, in part because the Gutenberg Bible, like all revolutionary books, acts like a spotlight on our historical eyes: the very act of enlightenment blinds us to its origins. From our standpoint, Gutenberg’s Bible looks like a brilliant beginning. But it was also a culmination of two decades of intense research and development, inspired by a vision rooted in the past. Dazzled by the light, we lose sight of the act of creation, and some fundamental questions: Why Gutenberg? Why the Rhineland in particular? Why the mid-fifteenth century? How might things have been different if it had been someone else, somewhere else, at another time? To get to the heart of the matter, how did he actually come to the idea? How much was down to his personal genius?

To explore these questions means entering an alien world, stepping back into the past across the bridge provided by Gutenberg’s invention. In Gutenberg’s time, Europe was an empty continent compared with today. Towns were no larger than modern villages, linked only by unpaved tracks. In western Germany it took half a day, on average, to walk or ride from one to the next, through forests that were the domains of wolves and spirits. At night, if you were foolish or unlucky enough to be out in the countryside, you would see no artificial glimmer to lighten clouded skies or rival the stars. Large buildings – cathedrals, or castles, or monasteries – were wonders for ordinary people, who lived with the seasons, at the mercy of disease, climate and warring rulers. Even an educated person had only the vaguest idea of events that would define eras for later generations. Experimental science was an impossibility, the Christian God a living presence, immortal souls as real as bodies, and sin as foul as plague. In pursuit of salvation, pilgrims by the ten-thousand toured hundreds of holy places, in lieu of undertaking a hazardous, year-long journey to the Holy Land itself. For a small fee, one could buy an indulgence, which freed one from the burden of sin for a time. These conditions and attitudes were set in a long-gone context, the seething patchwork of tiny units that formed the German-speaking world, the Holy Roman Empire, from which Germany would not emerge for another 400 years.


Researching these questions led me to conclusions that surprised me.

If printing was one of the foundations for the modern world, then – I had supposed – Gutenberg had to be a selfless genius, in the vanguard of modernity, dedicated to improving the world, eager to bring to it the benefits of new knowledge.

Not a bit. The truth, it now seems to me, is the precise opposite of my preconceptions. Gutenberg’s aim, I believe, was that of a businessman striving to be the first to cash in on the Continent-wide market offered by the Catholic Church. It was as an early capitalist that he was a modernist. But that aim could be fulfilled only if he could do something thoroughly reactionary, and unify a divided Christendom. It is one of history’s greater ironies that he achieved exactly the reverse of his intentions. Having succeeded at last, with an astounding display of brilliance and perseverance, he almost lost everything to his partners and colleagues, only by the skin of his teeth avoiding poverty and obscurity. And having produced one of the greatest of Christian publications, he ushered in a revolution – the Reformation – that blew Christian unity apart for ever.

His story is one of genius very nearly denied. A few records less, and we would not now be revering the Gutenberg Bible as his. All we would have would be the results: an idea that changed the world, and a book that is among the most astonishing objects ever created, a jewel of art and technology, one that emerged fully formed, of a perfection beyond anything required by its purpose. It is a reminder that the business Gutenberg started does indeed contain elements of the sublime – that at the heart of the mountains of printed dross there is gold.

*Wish You Were Here, Headline, 2003.

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