What needs has any man, besides those needs we share with beasts? And then I knew: he has to read.
Johann Gutenberg, to his apprentice, Peter Schoeffer
Mass-produced books were a radical concept in 1450. Peter Schoeffer — who would become Johann Gutenberg’s apprentice and later, “the wealthy founder of the greatest printing house in all of Germany” — initially scoffs at the idea. Trained as a scribe, Peter sees the printed page as “a crude and ugly copy of the best that man can do.”
Peter’s adoptive father, Johann Fust, a wealthy merchant and bookseller in Mainz, provides Gutenberg with financial backing. His investment includes Peter’s labor as an apprentice in Gutenberg’s hellish workshop, working 14 hours a day “sweating, stoking, crushing, pouring.”
They cast no letters for the whole first month. Instead they smelted, wreathed in noxious smokes, to try to find a metal alloy that would hold. They stooped around the forge like witches, eyes red-rimmed, hands black, their faces draped in clotted veils.
Throughout his relationship with Gutenberg, Peter never learns what drives the brilliant and abrasive “madman”:
What kind of man was this? What kind of stunted and inhuman being, to whom Peter had been yoked? For all the years he worked with him, he tried to understand. The truth was that he never really knew. Peter came as close as anyone: he’d seen the master’s childlike wonder and delight, and then the darkness that erupted, demons lurking just beneath the surface every time.
Of course, Gutenberg’s Apprentice is historical fiction. Little is known about the personalities and motivations of the novel’s three major characters — Gutenberg, Schoeffer, and Fust. That is the beauty (and the danger) of historical fiction. The novelist is able to imagine the interior lives of people who left behind few records of their thoughts and dreams. In an interview, author Alix Christie paraphrases Hilary Mantel: “Writers of historical fiction stand on the shoulders of giants – the scholars who actually excavate the past.”
Alix Christie uses a clever and effective framing device to tell Peter Schoeffer’s story. The novel begins with, and is punctuated by, the 60-year-old Schoeffer’s conversations with Abbot Trithemius, a monk who wants to learn about “the true beginning of the glorious art of printing”. Peter is reluctant to “blacken the master’s name” and reveal the crucial roles he and Fust played in Gutenberg’s enterprise. He wonders if “what they made will prove a force for good or ill”.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice is rich with historical detail — perhaps too rich for some readers. The politics of church and state in medieval Mainz were corrupt and complicated, with feuds involving church authorities, merchants, and townspeople. In 1462, Archbishop Adolf II sacked the city, killing hundreds of citizens. While it’s important to understand the political and religious climate in Mainz during the time Gutenberg’s Apprentice takes place, the sheer amount of detail can be confusing and at times detracts from the main storyline.
Christie, like the hero of her novel, was apprenticed at a young age to master printers, starting with her grandfather. She now owns and operates a 1910 letterpress. In 2001, she read a brief article in the New York Times about new discoveries that scholars of early printing were making about Gutenberg’s first types. Her interest sparked, she learned that Gutenberg was not a lone genius, as previously believed, but succeeded with the help of two key partners.
The invention of the printing press — believed by many historians to be humanity’s most important invention since the wheel — transformed society in ways that Gutenberg and his contemporaries could never have envisioned. In a letter to readers, Christie says: “My aim was not simply to record history, but to explore the interior struggles of people living in a time of cataclysmic change with eerie echoes of our own”. Digital technology has profoundly changed our society — and in ways that pioneers of the computer age never anticipated.
It’s interesting that Christie chose a quotation from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs for one of the novel’s epigraphs. I read recently that Jobs, like many other technology engineers, didn’t let his young children use iPads and iPhones. Digital technology, like the printed word, is powerful. Christie comments in an interview, “There is an uneasiness, a concern among some, that these magical devices are changing something essential in our nature.”
I have always loved books — not just reading them, but feeling the weight of them in my hands and looking at them on my shelves (and on my tables, my floors, in my car . . . everywhere). I feel comforted when I am in a room surrounded by books. Recently, though, I’ve been reading more e-books, and I enjoy the convenience when traveling and the ability to read in bed in the dark. But reading an e-book just isn’t the same experience for me. Reading Gutenberg’s Apprentice made me wonder how much of our pleasure in reading has to do with reading words printed in ink on paper.
Jason Merkoski (one of the developers of the Kindle) says, “I think we’ve made a proverbial pact with the devil in digitizing our words”. Merkoski, who says he “worked in a modern version of Gutenberg’s workshop” wrote a book called Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading, in which he waxes poetic about his love of print books (“If you’re like me, you’re passionate about books as things you can touch, that you can dog-ear or annotate, and that have covers you’ve come to enjoy”) but then goes on to say that reading is becoming a technology-based experience and that the culture of reading is evolving in a positive way.
Merkoski’s book is certainly self-serving, but he raises some interesting questions. Physical books, he says, have limitations and e-books are their natural continuation, adding to the reading experience. E-books, according to Merkoski, enhance reading by making what was once “primarily a solitary and individual activity” a social experience. What do you think? Are e-books the next step in an evolutionary process that hasn’t moved forward substantially since the 15th century? Or are they, as Peter Schoeffer might say, “crude and ugly” facsimiles of “real” books?
The Gutenberg Bible was unveiled at the first Frankfurt Book Fair (founded by Peter Schoeffer) in 1454 — 560 years ago this week. Happy Birthday to the publishing industry!