Last night, almost as a subconscious counterpunch to all the eBook talk going on in my world, my wife and I attended (at her behest) a talk at a local library on “Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Revolution” given by local historian, Lawrence Ludlow.
In 1455, Johannes Gutenberg printed his famous bible using his newly invented moveable type printing press. The press was ground-breaking in that it utilized individual metal letter stamps – unlike the traditional wood-carved & basically single-use stamps – which were durable enough to produce many more copies than anything before it. Well, before that, monks were still copying out every book by hand, so anything would have been an improvement. Although, interestingly enough, there was a bit of an uproar in the hand-written book industry where the monks believed that they would be run out of business by this new technology & thus railed against it. As it turns out, Gutenberg’s press and its high level of production speed only promoted the spread of literacy on an unprecedented scale, which essentially kept the monks in business for quite awhile. Sound familiar?
In his talk, Lawrence reminded us that that the printing press was essentially the most important invention of the last 1000 years – are we to honestly believe that that something so fundamental to the advancement of the human race should be so cavalierly dismissed as “outdated?” The printing press promoted literacy unlike anything before or since. By providing a cheaper, more easily produced book, more people throughout the world learned to read in order to advance along with the technology of the age. (In the 100 years after Gutenberg, it is estimated that the worldwide literacy rate jumped from 30% to 60%. We’re now somewhere around 90%.) While I can see how, in our era, the eBook can been viewed as a similarly inexpensive promotional device, I don’t think it should be seen as an advancement, as it is nothing more than an alternate version of a printed book. The delivery is different, but the product is the same, which is why I don’t think electronic books will ever fully replace anything. There is space in our world for both technologies and since the printed book has long been such a staple of our society, I cannot see that it will be so easily dismissed.
However, I was reminded of how Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com CEO & my self-perceived arch-nemesis sees things:
The physical book really has had a 500-year run. It’s probably the most successful technology ever. It’s hard to come up with things that have had a longer run. If Gutenberg were alive today, he would recognize the physical book and know how to operate it immediately. Given how much change there has been everywhere else, what’s remarkable is how stable the book has been for so long. But no technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever.
(What I can never understand is how Bezos has convinced himself that he is providing a technology that will supplant something as admittedly stable as a book. Is this simply ego or is he just not listening to himself speak?) To look at a book as a simple technology at this point is a fatal error, I believe. The book has been the building block of our modern society – none of us would be doing any of the things that we’re doing today had Johannes not built his press in 1455. There would be no Amazon.com, no internet, no Book Catapult. To dismiss the printed word as an over-and-done technology is naive and shortsighted.
Besides, electronic books lack the soul that a bound book has and are nowhere near as freakin’ awesome looking as a well-made book. Do yourself a favor, if you’re ever given the opportunity to be in the same room as an actual Gutenberg bible, don’t pass it up. I have seen the copy housed at Yale University’s Beineke Library and I can honestly say that it is the most incredible book I have ever laid eyes on. (This image is from the British Library’s high-resolution scans of their copy of the GB, which are available online as a taste.) I think my viewing of the Gutenberg set the tone for the last decade or so for me & has provided me with an undercurrent of perspective in the wake of the eBook revolution. How can you gaze on something like that and think that it could ever be replaced by a “better” technology? Can you make improvements on a Matisse painting or a Mozart composition? You think I overstep, but they are no different – books, paintings, music = art. Perhaps we’ve moved too far away from the elegance of books that those of Gutenberg’s age produced and this is why books are seen as simple arrangements of texts to modern eyes. Maybe we need to return to producing more beautiful volumes of printed books in order to renew that sense of beauty we’re lacking in our average bestseller. Let’s evolve by stepping back a bit.
I think that the printed book will long survive any other technological advance that aims to replace it. All it’s going to take is one well-placed electromagnetic pulse and all your precious eBooks are going to be wiped out – meanwhile, I’ll be reading one of my 1000’s of paperbound books by the burning embers of our civilization. And no, you can’t borrow any of them!
(FYI: there are several Gutenberg bibles in the United States available for public view. There is an incomplete copy at the Huntington Library in San Marcos, if you’re in Cali, and complete copies at the Library of Congress in DC, the Widener Library at Harvard, the University of Texas at Austin, and again, Yale’s Beineke Library in New Haven, CT.)