Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, September 30, 2010

resisting print

I’m reading and enjoying Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance, and as I move along I can’t stop comparing that moment of textual revolution with our own. For instance, the reluctance of the learned (by and large) to embrace a new technology:

The invention of printing was not the work of scholars. Scholars in the fifteenth century had all the books they needed: their attention was directed to the borrowing, copying and bargaining necessary to obtain more texts. It required hard, practical men, often men of little education, to see the potential of a new method of copying that would bring many hundreds of texts simultaneously to the marketplace. It was also men of this stamp who perceived how the techniques of medieval craft society could be applied to achieve this. . . .

It was swiftly becoming clear that it was the centres of trade, rather than of learning, that would provide the best locations for production of printed books in the fifteenth century. Rather against expectations print did not flourish in many places that boasted a distinguished medieval university. There was virtually no printing in Tübingen or Heidelberg; in England it would be London, rather than Oxford or Cambridge, that monopolised print. Large commercial cities proved more fertile territory.

But scholarly resistance to printed books was not wholly irrational:

The scholars who shared the excitement aroused by Gutenberg’s new invention did so for very specific reasons. They believed that print would make true texts, especially of the works of classical authors, more widely available. By this they meant that print would be employed to enable scholars and intellectuals to possess more books; humanists were less concerned that books should be made available to a broader range of the population. This is a crucial distinction; and it is in this context that the humanist criticism of print now developed. For it was swiftly realised that printed books had not necessarily produced more accurate editions. The first printed books could not live up to the standard set by manuscript production in Italy. They were often dirty, smudged and inaccurate. They included too many mistakes. The inefficiency and carelessness of printers would be a repeated lament of authors throughout the era of hand-press printing, but in this first generation it had a philosophical edge: the charge that print had debased the book.

Great stuff. I leave comparisons to our own age as an exercise for the reader. And I’ll report further as I read more.


  • It's an interesting point, and one that becomes more and more important for me to focus on as I get increasingly freaked out by technology. It reminds me of an interesting point that an interviewee made on NPR the other day--that Socrates himself felt the same about the new technology of the written word. He believed language in a written form would destroy humanity and intellectual discourse as he knew it, which, of course, it did.

    But the intellect remade itself, as it always does. I'm loving your continued thoughts on technology and the mind. Here's a blog post I wrote on a similar topic: http://casting-off.blogspot.com/2010/07/is-club-down-street.html

    Thanks again for your wisdom and witticism,
    Melissa Jenks, former student and regular reader

  • Hi Melissa! — great to hear from you — I hope you're doing well!

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