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