Recommended Reading: Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie

photo (131)As you might have noticed, the photos that accompany my review posts are not the lovely, high-definition pictures of a book cover alone, but rather photos of the copies of the books that I read.

One of the reasons for this is that I’m perhaps overly cautious when it comes to copyright, so I don’t like the idea of pulling covers from Amazon or publishers’ websites.

The other reason, though, is that I want to show writers and publishers that I am reading physical books.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an e-books-are-evil rant; even though I find them problematic in many ways, I understand why many people like them. I even have an e-reader (an ancient Nook) that I used when I was pregnant and commuting by train or bus and didn’t want to lose my grip to turn pages (much as I love Boston, it’s not the kind of town where pregnant women are automatically offered a seat, even if they are visibly pregnant). It was also a godsend when I was nursing and only had one arm free. But ever since, it’s been a backup device, there if I think I might want to read Jane Eyre or Sense and Sensibility on a trip.

I prefer physical books, and for this simple and selfish reason, I don’t want printed books to go the way of the illuminated manuscript. I like their heft, I like flipping the pages, I like seeing the type and the layout and width of the edge left to read. I like seeing my friends’ books arrayed on their shelves. I like seeing my own books arrayed on my shelves. I like bookmarks, reading lights, notes in the margins, and of course, reading glasses.

(I love books.)

And that is why you’ll see my humble photos of the books I read for as long as I run this site.

And that brings me to Gutenberg’s Apprentice*, Alix Christie’s debut novel about loyalty, family, religion, invention, and the printing press.

Let me say first, before I delve into the novel, that is is a gorgeous book. Ms. Christie owns and operates a letterpress, and the book designer must have taken her expertise into account when putting Gutenberg’s Apprentice together. The typefaces are perfectly chosen, the initial capitals resemble those in Gutenberg’s books, and the cover is spectacular. The map inside is hand-drawn and serves as the book’s endpaper, too.

Now, like most people who took Modern Euro in high school, I knew that Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type, which allowed books to be printed on an unprecedented scale. Books became accessible (if sometimes dangerous to own) and widespread, which meant, among other things, that more writers could influence more people.

What I did not know, however, is just how much work it took to print the Gutenberg Bible, and how much the hand of man figured in the machine that changed the world.

The apprentice in Gutenberg’s Apprentice is Peter Schoeffer, a young scribe dedicated to the art of copying manuscripts. Called home to Mainz by his foster father, the merchant Johann Fust, he hopes that he’ll soon be back in Paris, working on a large commission. To his dismay, Fust wants to apprentice him to a wild-eyed man named Johann Gutenberg, who is working on an invention that Peter views initially as evil, the work of the devil meant to eclipse the beauty of hand-lettered manuscripts.

Duty to Fust, who rescued him from an impoverished orphanhood, prevails, and Peter joins Gutenberg’s highly secret workshop. Backed by Fust’s funding, Gutenberg hopes to perfect his movable type technique and reap the rewards of selling cheaply printed books; Fust, too, hopes that printed books will make their own market and make him even richer.

Peter finds the work backbreaking, the master harsh and impatient on his best days, and the need for secrecy claustrophobic. Slowly, too, he finds himself caught between his master and his father, neither of whom trusts the other. Mainz is a city gripped by conflict; the complicated politics of Church and guild constantly threaten the work of printing, especially when it’s finally decided to begin a massive project: printing the Bible.

The work, always under threat of discovery, stretches on for years, but in those years, Peter begins to find in the workshop a kind of family. He takes pleasure and pride in his work, but more than that, begins to believe that they have been ordained by God Himself to accomplish this great task. The frame of the novel finds him looking back over these weary years:

He once believed that what they did would lift them higher, ever higher–he sensed the godliness that flows throughout Creation brush them. Until it cracked, and their whole workshop filled with anger and recriminations. With each succeeding year Peter has seen the world become unhinged, cacophonous, the very earth stunned by the pounding of machines. And he’s begun to wonder if God did not unleash some darker force with that great shining net of words. (4)

It does seem, given the labor involved—carving molds, casting type, mixing ink, pressing paper and vellum—a kind of miracle that the Gutenberg Bible ever came to exist. I had the privilege of seeing one, once, at the University of Texas, and it is a marvel. It’s enormous (two volumes). Its paper is creamy and its columns perfectly set, the ink a deep, crisp black. Gutenberg’s Apprentice helped me see the immense effort that went into creating this book, the men behind the machinery.

Ms. Christie’s book immerses the reader in mid-fifteenth-century Mainz, in its tangible details and its political climate; we feel the mood of the times. Her prose is straightforward and clean, bringing technical details to artful life.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice invites us to imagine how we would have viewed the printing press had we lived half a thousand ago, and how the inventors of the press might view our own historical moment. The sense of fear and hostility, curiosity and anticipation toward the printing press resonates with our own culture’s ambivalence about the proliferation of texts and voices in the age of digital media. Who can know what was meant to be, and who can predict what comes next?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

6 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie

  1. Considering that I was just mesmerized by your review, I would probably like this book. It makes me think of taking the kids to an historic village where they have all the little iron letters for lining up and printing newspapers, notices, etc. It seems like so much work! And, that’s relatively recent compared to Gutenberg’s time.

    As for real books, I completely agree with everything you said. Every book I read is the real thing. I never thought about the benefits of showing it. Mostly, it’s just quicker and easier to use the publisher’s picture, rather than hook up my camera to the computer (partly because my technical equipment and skills are still archaic compared to most people). I will try to do better!

  2. Hooray for celebrating physical books! I’m with you that it’s not necessary to denigrate e-books in order to say we prefer and celebrate physical books. Long may they persist! Your description you preference fits well with the book you just recommended, of course. It’s one I’ve already reserved at my local library, another old institution I like to help keep afloat, though I’m mostly a patron of local booksellers and used bookshops. Thank you, Rosemary and Reading Glasses.

  3. I read this article yesterday, which you would probably find interesting. I also learned that the word stereotyping has it’s roots in old printing techniques, which is kind of cool. This article is neat because you can choose to read it in “book” form, clicking to turn pages, “scroll” form, like you normally would on the internet, or audio. Check it out:

    I love paper and ebooks for different reasons. This post did inspire me to be more creative with book photos though. It gives the post a little more character.

  4. Pingback: A Selection of Great Blog Posts October 2014 | Consumed by Ink

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