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The Gutenberg Age

Anybody who feels that the times we live are unique, that the anxiety we experience from information overload is the product of the 20th century, that pornography, censorship, and free exchange of ideas are new concepts, just doesn't know the history of printing.These were all the joys and maladies of the 16th century as well, thanks to a flash of serendipity on the part of Strasbourg resident Johannes Gutenberg.Or to be more precise, It was Gutenberg's wife Anna, who, 548 years ago, goaded her husband into the invention of movable type.Here is the story, at least as told in Emily C. Pearson's 1871 book Gutenberg and the Art of Printing: At the time Gutenberg lived, books were written out by hand. An industrious monk could copy one Bible out in his lifetime, maybe two if he was single-minded enough. So Gutenberg certainly surprised seminary students at a nearby cathedral by quickly fulfilling multiple orders for Ars Memorandi, a religious treatise on the art of dying. His secret? Engraving pages on woodblocks and pressing out copies rather than scribing each page by hand -- a hack he picked up from the more secular-minded playing-card industry.Johannes thought himself pretty clever and had even seen some profits by this venture, so Anna implored him to print the entire Bible. She wanted to see her man as the one who brought the Good Word to the masses; she was also, to be frank, tired of practicing a rigid economy of dress, a necessity borne of marrying this inventive but pecuniarily challenged aristocrat. And she knew Bibles would sell like hotcakes.Yet Johannes protested. Carving out all 700 pages would take 30 years. Why his workers were already wary of large undertakings. They complained that even the Gospels, which they'd just started, were too large.They toiled away gloomily, certain their task would never be completed. And one day Gutenberg, overhearing his employees' grumbling, gashed at a nearly finished block of wood with such anger that he accidentally split it."Oh man! This bloweth!" he might have cursed. (Unfortunately neither history nor Pearson recorded what invective he did utter at that historic moment. I just made that one up). One worker looked over at Gutenberg as though his boss were an idiot. Gutenberg quickly picked up the broken pieces and tried to fit them back together.At that moment, a thought occurred to him: Maybe splitting the wood wasn't such a bad idea.Instead of carving out entire pages, maybe he could carve out a wooden block for each letter, and then assemble sentences from them. After all, there were only 24 letters in the Latin alphabet. Why keep carving them over and over? All he would have to do is make one set and keep reusing them for different projects.The workers thought the idea foolish. Separate blocks would take longer to carve, they argued -- not to mention all the time it would take to string them together. They worked for Gutenberg in a profit-sharing arrangement and were nervous about spending so many man-hours on the letter-blocks, time that could be spent producing revenue-generating books. A disgusted few even considered returning to the lucrative profession of stone polishing.But Gutenberg saw the bigger picture. Once this new method of printing was in place, he could finish the Bible, and many other books as well. No longer would libraries be the province of kings! No longer would the keys to divinity be only in the hands of preachers. Everyone could know religion, just as everyone could know of the arts and sciences!Gutenberg didn't envision the half of it. His moveable type spawned a communications revolution that is still unfolding today. The effect was especially felt in the following century. Books, pamphlets, drawings, and broadsides started circulating -- their influence affecting everyone, literate or not.As Censorship: 500 Years of Conflict, a companion book to a 1984 New York Public Library exhibit of the same name, pointed out, printing "intensified controversy in an already contentious age." Up until that time, debates were limited to the private exchange of letters or public gatherings. Printing offered an "opportunity to respond again and again to an ever-widening audience. Now everyone with a facility in Latin or a vernacular language could follow the major political and religious discussions of the day. Now anyone having access to the press could join the debate."Not everyone was pleased. The clergy and other authority figures reacted with horror. Not only did they see how books turn men into social recluses, but many volumes were downright dangerous. European royalty and religious officials saw themselves as the gatekeepers of knowledge, carefully preserving The Truth as they knew it. If such matters were left to the common folk, who knows what damage they'd do? The emotionally-charged writings of radicals such as Martin Luther fragmented Christianity into many divisions. Non-Christian writing, such as volumes of Jewish thought, kept turning up, despite public book burnings. Later, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, suppressed by the British government, incited rebels and outcasts on a distant shore to start their own country. Pornographic chapbooks spread, as did tabloid-like copy. "Professional writers were delighted to feed a public taste for sensationalism by providing ... tracts on earthquakes, macabre events, or some new freak with two heads recently born in a remote shire of England," David Hall wrote in the book The Uses of Literacy in New England, 1600-1850.Through book burnings and licensing restrictions, the church and governments tried to keep print under control, but to little avail. Laws were difficult to enforce. Presses popped up everywhere, and censored books traveled rapidly between countries. Black markets and the pirating of well-known works flourished as well. In the end, all the church and governments' control of information eroded considerably; as the New York Public Library's 500 Years book summarized, it became the purview of the individual "to decide what was good and what was not."And though this democratization of knowledge was Gutenberg's doing as much as anyone's, he never did profit from his Bible, which took five years to finish. Just before completion, it was physically snatched from him in an investor lawsuit -- not that it sold all that well anyway. After all, few people back then could read.

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