Inventing the book

I’ve been reading The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree while traveling. I'm pretty sure it was recom­mended to me by Tim Carmody. Even if not, it might as well have been. Reading Tim primes you perfectly for this book.

It’s a history of the early era of printing, and along the way, Pettegree treats you to all these amazing little stories of business and invention and life in the 15th and 16th centuries. Initially there’s not a lot of writing, though. Basically none of the books printed and sold during that time were original compositions; instead, it was all stuff written centuries earlier.

Slowly, that began to change. I just finished the mini chapter on Erasmus, “the first living author to make a substan­tial living from writing,” and I’m enchanted. Erasmus, you see, was a media inventor:

[He] was acutely aware of the role that the printer played in the success of a volume. Throughout his career he gave close attention to the produc­tion process, seeking out the best printers and working closely with them to ensure that the text was both elegant and accurate.

In fact,

When Erasmus prepared his commen­tary for the edition of Jerome, he set out his manu­script in exactly the same arrange­ment as it would appear on the printed page, with a large space left for a woodcut initial letter.

But really, everybody was a media inventor back then.

Pettegree’s history overflows with folks coming up with new formats, new materials (new papers, new inks), new supply chains (did you know books were trans­ported from city to city in specially-constructed book barrels?), new financial arrange­ments (very often, printers would pay for paper with … books), new business models (Renaissance printers made a big chunk of their incomes, c.f. Tim again, selling calendars, almanacs, and the cash-cow Book of Hours)—and then all copying each other like crazy.

The place to copy and be copied was the Frankfurt fair, which happened twice a year; this was the pulse of the whole European book business. Every spring and autumn, everybody came together to buy, sell, settle debts, and do a bit of trend-spotting. Printers synchro­nized new releases with the fair, because if you missed it, you had to wait another six months before you’d move any inventory. Maybe worse, your competi­tors would have the market all to them­selves in that time. Here’s Erasmus again:

[N]othing gave Erasmus greater pleasure than his success in outfoxing Luther, when the reformer published his attack on Erasmus in 1526. Erasmus received a copy of Luther’s Bondage of the Will less than a fortnight before the spring fair. Luther must have antic­i­pated a free run for his work. But Erasmus set to work, [his printer] Froben cleared his presses, and working on six presses simul­ta­ne­ously had Erasmus’s reply ready in time.

Reading Pettegree’s book, I find myself thinking: How thrilling. How fun. I wish I could have been part of that. But then I realize two things:

  1. It was a thrilling time for printers, but a horrible time for writers. Long-dead church fathers got a lot of play; living voices, not so much. The business of books wouldn’t welcome new work until a century or more after its start.

  2. This is all happening again, right now. Now sure: history’s not a spiral, and our case is new. The internet is not the printing press and the Kindle Store is not the Frankfurt fair. But there’s something in the feeling, if not the details, that is the same. The great opportunity, the greater confusion, and, greatest of all, the lure of invention.

May 2011, Chios