Gutenberg’s Apprentice

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One thing that librarians get asked a LOT (by non-librarians) is how we feel about eBooks-are they going to kill publishing, aren’t we scared of them, why can’t we just make a deal with Amazon to get everything free ever. Of course, in actual fact a lot of my budget goes on buying individual textbook eBooks, which in some cases are prohibitively expensive and limited in usability, and then seeing them hardly ever get used. Or desperately trying to promote the massive corporate eBook platform packages that are the only realistic way libraries that aren’t predominantly fiction-based have of getting their users access to the things.

But I will miss real books, when the time comes. They are lovely things.

Imagine a world before them.

This debut book by printer and journalist Alix Christie asks us to do just that. Imagine the Western world before printing. Where everything, everything, had to be written out by hand. Imagine the time and the patience and the expertise it would have taken to be able to write, beautifully, legibly, for hours on end. Then imagine that world being ripped apart and your job being made redundant, instantly. This is the main difference between the eBook revolution and what happened upon the invention of printing; printed publishing isn’t going to be made obsolete with eBooks, merely change. In 1455 a whole trade was invented that virtually destroyed another one.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice is the story of Peter Schoeffer, the man behind the Frankfurt Book Fair, who begins life as an orphan, taken in by the family of Fust the merchant, and apprenticed firstly as a goldsmith, then eventually as a scribe. Working in Paris, at the top of his game, life looks rosy for Peter until his is called home by his adopted father who has a mission for him. Fust has got himself involved financially with Johann Gutenberg and his new invention-movable type made of metal. What Gutenberg needs is someone with finesse, a scribe to add the finishing touches. Peter, with his artist’s eye (and these scribe were true artists, look at the various Medieval manuscript Twitter accounts and see just how lovely hand-written books were) is just what the printer needs. That and Fust’s money. Printing costs a LOT of money. I never realised just how must money, and STUFF, goes in to printing a book, or at least would have done in 1455.

But of course it is a lot more complicated than that. This is the beginning of the Renaissance, there are various political upheavals happening in Mainz, where they are based, and across Europe and beyond. This book expertly shows the links between politics, religion, business and invention. However, and this is where the book falls down, this is a very very complicated time to be alive. I have studied this period in European history for my A Levels and have a general interest in it anyway and I got confused. Incredibly detailed in her research, Christie has basically written a non-fiction book with a semi-imagined character telling it. Between the various loyalties of guilds and Elders and archbishops and monks that Peter has to navigate I found myself frequently lost and skimming for plot points.

If you want to know about the history of the first printed books, in lots of detail, this book is for you. It is fascinating, and deserves to be read properly, but I couldn’t help thinking, why didn’t she just write it as a non-fiction book? It is a dramatic enough story to deserve to be told in its own right, it didn’t need to have Peter dragging us along.

This book is most successful in that it makes you see what printing really was; a revolutionary idea that would have been really quite scary to some people.Gutenberg’s Apprentice is massive and takes a long time-but if you want to get to grips with a history of a thing, I’d save this for a Christmas treat to really let your mind be filled with the world of metal and fire and sweat that creates these beautiful, beautiful books we now take so for granted.

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