Gutenberg’s Apprentice — Book Review

9780062336019Books everywhere, and costing less than manuscripts — in quantities that simply stun the mind. Imagine how the world would look if anyone could buy one.
Johann Fust, to his son, Peter Schoeffer

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.

three-men-readingOf 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!

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10 Books to Read This Fall

I can’t believe it’s already the last day of September. It’s been a glorious month here in Chicago, and I’m savoring every minute of the warmth and sunshine. For what it’s worth, the Farmers’ Almanac is predicting another frigid and snowy winter in the Midwest. All the more reason to have a pile of good books waiting to be read! Here are 10 books either just published or due to be published this fall to add to your list.

9780062306814The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton)
In 17th century Amsterdam, a young woman marries a wealthy businessman, who gives her a replica of their canal house — opening the door to many strange happenings. The book was inspired by an actual cabinet house owned by Petronella Oortman — which I was lucky enough to see recently in the Rijksmuseum.  The Guardian says it is “a fabulously gripping read” that will “appeal to fans of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch“, which think describes it perfectly. (Although I dislike the word “read” used as a noun . . .)9780062336019

Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Alix Christie)
Author Christie, a letterpress printer, contends that Gutenberg’s success was due to his gifted young apprentice, Peter Schoeffer. According to the New York Times, “Christie spotlights intriguing parallels between 15th-century Europe and the digital media of the 21st-century world.” As a lover of the printed page, I can’t wait to read this one.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Jeff Hobbs)
Robert Peace escaped the slums of Newark, New Jersey to attend Yale University — where he was author Hobbs’s roommate. He died at age 30, the victim of a gang-related drug assassination. The book has been receiving a lot of acclaim; the Los Angeles Times says: “In the end, The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a book that is as much about class as it is race. Peace traveled across America’s widening social divide, and Hobbs’s book is an honest, insightful and empathetic account of his sometimes painful, always strange journey.” (Two other excellent books on this topic are The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind.)

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering (Matt Richtel)
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable page-turner about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving story of heartbreak and healing. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

What the Lady Wants (Renee Rosen)
Rosen’s first historical novel, Dollface, is an entertaining and enlightening excursion back to Prohibition-era Chicago.  I’m anxious to read her next book, set in the Gilded Age, about department store tycoon Marshall Field and his love affair with Delia Canton. There will be opportunities in Chicago to meet Renee Rosen, hear her read from the book, and ask questions; details to come.  (Due November 4)

9780307700315Some Luck (Jane Smiley)
Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, a modern-day retelling of King Lear.  She returns to Iowa farm country with her new novel about 33 years in the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their five very different children. Each chapter covers a single year, beginning in 1920 soon after Walter’s return from World War I. The book is the first installment in a trilogy about the Langdons, and about the transformation of American culture and society in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to Publishers Weekly, “Smiley conjures a world—time, place, people—and an engaging story that makes readers eager to know what happens next.”

A Sudden Light (Garth Stein)
The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Stein’s new novel. This one is not narrated by a dog — instead, by a 14-year-old boy, Trevor Riddell. Trevor’s bankrupt, recently separated father brings him and his sister Serena to their grandfather’s mansion in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father from carrying out his plan. I’m in the middle of the book now, and loving it . . . and that is surprising, because I hate ghosts.

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_lgWe Are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas)
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”

Five Days Left (Julie Lawson Timmer)
If you’re in the mood for a good cry, this is the book for you. Two people have five days left with the people they love most. I can’t really tell you more than that, except that if you read it on public transportation, make sure you have some Kleenex handy. It will definitely get your book club talking, although if you are the one who recommends it, you may be accused of suggesting “depressing” reading material.

Nora Webster (Colm Tóibín)9781439138335
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Irish author Tóibín, especially Brooklyn and The Master, and have been hearing wonderful things about his new novel. Set in his hometown in Wexford County, Nora Webster is the story of a widow raising four children in Ireland during the 1960s and early 1970s.  The Chicago Tribune says: “There is no flash and dazzle in Tóibín’s writing, just unobtrusive control, profound intelligence and peerless empathy that is almost shocking in its penetration.” I’m looking forward to hearing Tóibín speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 9. (Due October 7)