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Gutenberg II?

Helen Sheppard Fisher, one of our associates, a lady with a keen sense for books, acquired a remarkable volume by Alberto Manguel soon after it appeared and made it part of our corporate holdings as a gift. The book is A History of Reading, Viking, 1996. One paragraph came back to us the other day while contemplating the spread of e-books and electronic publishing generally. The paragraph comes from a chapter titled “The Shape of the Book.” Here it is:

The effects of Gutenberg’s invention were immediate and extraordinarily far-reaching, for almost at once many readers realized its great advantages: speed, uniformity of texts and relative cheapness. Barely a few years after the first bible had been printed, printing presses were set up all over Europe: in 1465 in Italy, in 1470 in France, 1472 in Spain, 1475 in Holland and England, 1489 in Denmark. (Printing took longer to reach the New World: the first presses were established in 1533 in Mexico City and in 1638 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) It has been calculated that more than 30,000 incunabula (a seventeenth-century Latin word meaning “related to the cradle” and used to describe books printed before 1500) were produced on these presses. Considering that fifteenth-century print-runs were usually of fewer than 250 copies and hardly ever reached 1,000, Gutenberg’s feat must be seen as prodigious. Suddenly, for the first time since the invention of writing, it was possible to produce reading materials quickly and in vast quantities. [From page 134; footnotes omitted.]

The first Gutenberg bible was completed in 1455. Thus in roughly fifty years printing spread over Europe, in less than a hundred across the continents. We may now be in an analogous process whereby the book migrates from printed pages to electronic storage and transmission—and the process is likely to take places much faster than the spread of movable type. Manguel points out elsewhere in this chapter that printed books did not replace hand-written volumes. Indeed some of the more beautiful such volumes were created in this period. But ultimately calligraphed books disappeared from commerce altogether. Is that likely to happen to the printed book in the turbulent wake now beginning to rise from the Kindle?

In a way we hope that printed and electronic books will both continue side by side into the distant future—if for no other reason than to guarantee the preservation of knowledge. The big difference between these two forms of the book is that printed products will survive any kind of major technological meltdown which deprives large areas of electricity for extended periods of time. Bad things do happen. If they were to happen in some future time when books are no longer printed (thinking now in a science fiction mode), humanity might not only lose much practical knowledge but may have to recover from a few ancient volumes the wisdom of the ages—and may have to reinvent movable type all over again.


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