toggle me
Comments: 0
Category: Blog, On My Soapbox
Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible – image credit to The University of Texas Harry Ransom Center

Technology is an amazing thing. I think about it on a daily basis, and how many of these advancements we take for granted. For instance, a trip from New York to Los Angeles in 1850 would take MONTHS, not hours, to accomplish. Yet every single day hundreds of people make that exact trip via the wonder of air travel, and only in a matter of hours. Or how about a letter, traveling by horseback, in 1850 – you think the USPS changed a few things?

Then there’s the year 1438, one year before Johannes Gutenberg printed the world’s first EVER mass-produced book, The Gutenberg Bible. Well, let me clarify…he invented movable type (an early version of the printing press,) which facilitated the production of multiple copies of the same manuscript. Before his creation, only the wealthiest could afford actual books, and most people were illiterate. Communication was done verbally, and those who could read, and afford to own books, were the writers of modern history. That’s power.

The Book of Eli movie posterThe Book of Eli, a recent movie with Denzel Washington, is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. In the movie, the post-apocalyptic world spawned a new generation of people who couldn’t read or write ā€“ books were useless to them. Think of the absolute power a person could have if they not only could read, but possessed a religious text like the Bible. Absolutely incredible.

Gutenberg’s invention didn’t change the world overnight. The availability of a printed book didn’t create literacy. And owning one of these books was still extremely expensive. However is was the catalyst for aggressive progress. Take the computer…the world’s first version was a big-ole calculator. Now look at us. In 64 short years we’re now in a 3G, smart phone, touch screen, social networking, flash drive, online data storage society. It all starts somewhere.

Being a grad of The University of Texas at Austin (Hook ā€˜Em!), I had the distinct privilege of seeing one of only 48 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin purchased copy #39 in 1978 for $2.4 million. Only 11 copies exist in America, and of those 11 copies only 5 are classified as complete ā€“ the copy at UT is one of those. No offense to the Constitution of the United States, but I believe that those 11 books are the most valuable pieces of paper our country did, does, or will EVER own.

And for the record, it is gorgeous. The craftsmanship, typography, color, illustrations…everything is impeccable, even after almost 600 years. What an honor to have seen it.

early printing press

An early version of the printing press, possibly close to Gutenberg’s version.

Back to the lecture at hand…the Gutenberg printing press changed everything. And up until about a decade ago, there wasn’t any threat to the legacy, power, and influence of the written word. Then 9-11, and an eventual US economic slump happened. I’m no historian, so I won’t pontificate about all of the influences that lead to hundreds and thousands of newspapers and magazines going under. I do know that consumer and commercial money belts were tightened, and that meant ad budgets declined and subscription rates dropped. Major US cities that once had 3, 4 even 5 newspapers were now down to 1 or 2, sometimes zero. The world began changing…it was cheaper and faster to publish online.

But change didn’t wash away the past. Not everyone likes the idea of the death of print. After all, an e-reader or iPad simply don’t have the same ease of use, aesthetic quality, or nostalgia of a paperback book or newspaper. When you’re done with an iPad, can you use it to pack dishes for a move? Can you use it to start a fire? Can you clip parts of it out for friends, family, or personal scrap books? Does a paperback book require brightness and contrast settings to read? Does it need to be recharged? Can you read an e-reader during take-off on an airplane?

Here’s where I stop the soapbox blabbering and get to my perspective. I love print. It’s what I do. While in college, I fell in love with it. The UT College of Fine Arts owns an actual 19th century letterpress, and I used it for a few projects. Through the Design program curriculum, I made actual books by hand. I learned where all of this technology that we take for granted originated from. And believe you me, after learning the ins-and-outs of the letterpress, you have no idea how massive an undertaking it was for Gutenberg to produce his Bibles.

The current state of print hangs in a delicate balance. The resurgence of the American economy is beginning, so more than likely ad revenue and consumer subscriptions will pick up again. But will the American people, or even the world, for that matter, re-embrace print?

My love for paper, ink, and the offset printing process will never die. But I also realize that I am in the minority of people who not only understand the technology, but care enough to rant about it. For those of you who aren’t like me, I ask you this…can you remember the last time you received a printed piece that stood out to you? A wedding invitation, perhaps? Or a really nice hardback book? Did you keep it? My guess is yes, but not for the reason you think you did. Most of you would say it is a keepsake to remember a moment in time, or that the book was $24.95. But I disagree… that invitation, or that book, are still with you because they are more than messages or words on paper. They are pieces of artwork. They are worthy of being kept, being displayed. And without you fully realizing it, you have an attachment to those items because of the aesthetic quality they possess. That’s the power of paper and ink.

When you are at home tonight (assuming you are reading this during the work day…shame on you, but thanks!), I’ll ask you to spend a moment and grab the most memorable piece of printed material you can think of. Apply your senses of touch, smell, and hearing. Feel the texture of that paper. Smell it…sounds weird, but it will take you somewhere, I promise. Now listen as you turn the pages or touch it with your fingers. The human interaction with ink on paper is a bond that modern technology will never break. And wouldn’t you miss it? If the world went completely digital over the next decade, you’d be telling stories of printed text. How a library smells. The feel of a nice piece of paper. The sound of tearing open an envelope.

I, for one, pray that day will never come.

Ā©2010 Bryan Lester

Comments are closed.