686: Gutenberg by John Man

by Gerard

686.1092: Man, John. Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words. New York: MJF Books, 2002. 292 pp. ISBN 1-56731-743-X.

There are certain cataloguers that would place this book in the 020s, as it could be considered a book on books, but this book is more a biography of a historical person who invented the technology possible to mass-produce books on a scale never seen before. And, Dewey being Dewey, there is a special section for technology related to printing: 686.

Johannes Gutenberg’s life is just tangible enough to warrant a full-length biography, and just sketchy enough to beget a whole society of people who scour archives around Europe trying to find anything they can about him. If it weren’t for his many business dealings (and debts), we wouldn’t have half the information we do now. Born in 1398 to an upper-class merchant family, he grew up around the minting and goldsmithing trades. He is assumed to have studies at the University of Erfurt around 1418. And then he disappears.

In March of 1434 he shows up in Strasbourg as a goldsmith and a gem polisher. In the late 1430s, during a business plan to mass-manufacture relic mirrors for an upcoming pilgrimage year, he assembled a few partners to fund an idea he had—the moveable type printing press. By the 1450s, he had accumulated enough money to begin work on his first books, and by 1455, the famous Gutenberg Bible was produced. The invention of the press was kept very secret, presumably because all the items to build it existed in Europe at the time, but no one had put them all together. Unfortunately, for Johannes, right when all his products were due to start becoming profitable, his backers called in their debts, and left Gutenberg with just enough to break even, re-locate his business, and start again.

The sad theme of Gutenberg’s life is that throughout his most creative period, his constant search for perfection and his constantly shifting projects left him without the means to profit from his invention. Later in life, he was recognized by the Archbishop of Mainz Adolph von Nassau and was awarded a pension. Gutenberg died in 1468 largely unknown as the inventor of the moveable type printing press.

In the decades after its invention, the amount of printed material exploded. By the end of the 15th century, there were 64,000 presses throughout Europe, churning out millions of books.  The press sparked the Renaissance in that it allowed information to be made available to any scholar who needed it. So much has been made of the invention of the printing press that it seems to do it little justice here.

John Man’s tale of the machine and its inventor is very good. He understands the shortcomings of the current knowledge of Gutenberg and tries to find avenues (both historical and religious) to explain some of the circumstances in his life. The digressions that do exist are fun and, many times, necessary. Anyone with an interest in early bibliography will enjoy this book.