The Font Of All Wisdom


The Font Of All Wisdom Essay, Research Paper

The font of all wisdom The Gutenberg Revolution John Man 312pp, Review Subtitles are becoming ridiculously long-winded. The one attached to John Man’s little book claims that it is “The story of a genius and an invention that changed the world”. This is true enough, though it says much about our increasingly semi-literate society that the name Johann Gutenberg alone is no longer assumed to be instantly recognisable. And yet the western father of printing has influenced cyberspace as much as anything that followed from his exertions in 15th-century Germany: the computer on which I’m composing this piece offers me 36 different typefaces in an assortment of sizes, from 9- to 72-point. That fact alone signifies a very remarkable form of evolution. It really began not with Gutenberg but in the Orient, where the Chinese were printing books with wooden blocks 700 years earlier, and where the Koreans had proceeded to moveable metal type by 1234. There were drawbacks that prevented much development of either, however. Chinese paper was too delicate for anything but calligraphy or block-printing, and the Koreans had to contend with over 40,000 characters, which didn’t lend itself to the particular benefit of metal type: comparatively speedy setting for a print run as big as you like. A manageably short alphabet was the main reason the west took a lead in printing that it would never relinquish, though there have been other factors. Until the 19th century, Islam, which gave so much to civilisation, virtually ignored printing because its most vital traditions had always been transmitted orally ( Koran means “recitation”). Nor was Gutenberg, as is often assumed, a man driven by a passion for the written word and its widest possible circulation. He was a businessman, doing quite well out of making mirrors, who saw printing as a means of enriching himself even more (just as William Caxton would move from diplomacy and cloth-trading in Bruges to set up his Westminster press 30 years later). Some of the technology was already available before the German came on the scene. The printing press was a simple adaptation of the appliance the Romans had used for turning grapes into wine and olives into oil. The highly skilled craft of making the steel punches with which images could be cut for impression on coins also dated back to ancient times. Gutenberg’s particular genius lay in seeing how these and other devices could be combined into an invention that would revolutionise the world. The tradition that his first press was set up in his home town of Mainz in 1440 has been challenged by a German scholar in recent years, Strasbourg being nominated instead. Man dismisses the claim, though Gutenberg did spend several years in the Alsatian city and probably experimented there. He then went missing for a while (possibly to avoid involvement in a local war) and cannot with certainty be located in Mainz again until 1448. It was there that he produced his first book, a Latin primer. The Bible that bears his name followed in 1455, when the revolution was properly underway and printing was being spoken of as “this holy art”. Where a monk would have needed a week to copy two pages in his scriptorium, the printer could run off 500 copies of an entire book in the same time. Within a dozen years of Gutenberg’s death, no fewer than 122 towns across Europe had printing presses, and the balance of creative power was shifting from Germany to Italy, where the dominance of Gothic type was ended and Venice became the continent’s printing capital. By the end of the 15th century, Man estimates, something between 15 and 20 million printed books were circulating. (Not, presumably, in Montenegro, where the first Slavic press was set up and shortly after went out of production because the locals melted down all the type to make bullets.) Man is good at conveying the atmosphere of medieval Mainz: “A collection of spires and roofs parcelled by a wall… a clutter of wharves where a dozen ships are docked.” But he is most at home when explaining matrices and formes, punches and fonts, all the complicated and excruciatingly precise technology of the master printer’s craft. It took a year to make the punches with which the Gutenberg Bible was formed, with double-columned pages 42 lines deep. This, as Man points out, makes for perfect proportion, a typographical version of the golden section that the Greeks first hit upon for the Parthenon. There were 300 such punches, “with each steel-engraved letter and every type cast from it, and every line made up from those letters, made and set to an accuracy measured in hundredths of a millimetre”. You can see how such a pride developed among our own craftsmen that they became the most truculent of all the British trade unions. I have called this a little book, and so it literally is, of that pocketable size which Dava Sobel’s essay on the clockmaker John Harrison, Longitude, made fashionable. Set in the uncommon Poliphilus typeface – spacious, with sharp-cut serifs and tilted hyphens – it has a typographical pedigree originating in Italy at the end of the 15th century, in the lusty Hypnerotomachia Poliphili , described by Man as “one of the craziest, most beautiful books ever printed… the work of a cryptomaniac”. His own book is extremely erudite and enormously enthusiastic, though sometimes irritatingly chatty. It is worth persisting with, however, for its subject is nothing less than one of the greatest turning points in the development of civilisation. But it’s odd that Margaret Thatcher isn’t noticed in the author’s summing-up. She, after all, hammered the last nail into the coffin of hot-metal printing in this country. · Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book, The Pilgrimage of Grace is out from Weidenfeld in August.

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