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The Printing Revolution Begins

from Jacques Barzun:

Anything that can be said about the good letters implies the book, the printed book. To be sure, new ideas and discoveries did spread among the clerisy before its advent, but the diffusion of manuscripts is chancy and slow. Copying by hand is the mother of error, and circulation is limited by cost. As was noted earlier, print made a revolution out of a heresy. Speed in the propagation of ideas generates a heightened excitement. Besides, the handwritten roll or sheaf (codex), on vellum or primitive paper, makes for awkward reading and for clumsy handling and storing. Indexing, too, was long absent or unsatisfactory, because the medieval mind rejected the alphabetical order—it was “artificial,” “irrational,” since no principle governs the sequence a, b, c, d, and the rest. To the modern lover of books, the product of the press is an object that arouses deep feelings, and looking at Dürer’s charcoal drawing of hands holding a book, one likes to think the artist felt the same attachment. The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.

        With multiple copies of works available and new works rapidly coming out, the incentive to learning to read was increased. The one drawback to print is that the uniform finality of black on white leads the innocent to believe that every word so enshrined is true. And when these truths diverge from book to book (for the incentive to write and publish is also increased), the intellectual life is changed. From being more or less a duel, it becomes a free-for-all. The scrimmage makes for a blur of ideas, now accepted as a constant and fondly believed to be, like the free market, the ideal method for sifting truth.

       Italy was a pioneer in that transformation also. In Venice at the end of the 15C an inventive printer-Humanist who called himself Aldus Manutius (from Aldo Manuzio or Manucci) founded a house which for a century issued the Greek and Latin classics in the best form. An Aldine edition meant excellence and is now for collectors to hoard. Aldus designed simpler forms and styles of letters, notably the italic, which tradition says was based on Petrarch’s handwriting. The regular font is, again by apt tradition, called roman, without capital r. Before these now familiar fonts printers had imitated in metal the latest form of the copyists’ handwriting, thereby producing the “black letter” volumes, now even more precious to collectors. There were ligatures between pairs of letters and special forms of the same letter for use when next to another. One font is known to have numbered 240 characters. The page was beautiful but not easy to read, especially for the recently illiterate. A modified black letter remained in German books until nearly the mid-20C.

        Aldus was not the only great printer-designer. Every country could boast several of comparable genius, such as the Estienne brothers in France and the Elzevirs in Holland. To them collectively we owe several conveniences: punctuation, accents in the Romance languages, the spacing that makes words, sentences, and paragraphs stand out as units of meaning, with capital letters adding to this clarity. The first call for uniform spelling was also of that time and had the same purpose.

        Another potent publisher was William Caxton. Starting out in life as a merchant and becoming wealthy, Caxton turned his thoughts to literature and began translating and writing out by hand a popular work. His “pen grew weary,” as he tells it, so he learned printing, set up a press in Cologne, and after two years as publisher there returned to England. From then on, unlike his colleagues abroad, he kept translating and publishing works only in the vernacular. First and last, he brought out nearly all the best extant in English, notably Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Caxton’s own prose is not fluent, but his choice of one English dialect and his steady output for a public of lords, gentry, and clerics contributed to the eventual standardization of the language.

        This first generation of international publishers did not merely make and sell books; they were scholars and patrons who translated the classics, nurtured their authors, and wrote original works. Their continual redesigning of letter forms gave rise to the new art of typography. Dozens of fine artists since 1500 have created typefaces for every kind of use without making the earliest ones obsolete. Books have a period look to the connoisseur; he can spot the date by the typeface, except that new books are still printed in Caslon, Jenson, Garamond, and other fonts made and named after these early printers. It is only very recently that an ugly, bastard alphabet (and numbers as on printed checks), has been contrived under silent pressure from non-human “readers.”

        As a whole, the early printed book of good quality was a work of art. The page was a composition—whence the name compositor for the typesetter. Margins, space between lines, indents, capital letters—everything was in studied proportion, and the woodcut illustrations were by master hands—Holbein, Dürer, Cranach among the most prolific. This regard for beauty was not new; it continued the medieval tradition and was in one respect inferior to it: it lacked illuminated initials. It made up for it by a handsome tide page, which named and often described the author: “Marsilio Ficino, Florentine and Celebrated Doctor and Philosopher”; to which was added the rudimentary blurb: “On caring for the health of students or those who work in Letters, taking care of their good health.” Next came the dedication to a patron, chief source of the author’s income. It was an ingenious device: in praising expectantly or uttering gratitude for past gifts, it gained a protector and, thanks to print, it might indeed bestow “immortal fame.” Both parties had an equal chance of profiting from the bargain. (Speaking of profit, the late 15C also saw the faint outline of the thought of copyright.)

        As a physical object, the Humanist book differed in several respects from those that now overcrowd the city dweller’s shelves. To 16C scholars our usual octavo volume, although another Aldine invention, seemed miniaturized. Theirs was a thick and heavy folio measuring 12 by 15 inches or more. Folio means that the large printer’s sheet of thick rag paper was folded once to provide four pages. These were bound in leather- or vellum-covered boards—real boards, of wood, held shut by a metal clasp at midpoint of the vertical; cloth binding is only 175 years old. Often, a chain was attached to the book for safekeeping; it might be stolen—strange idea! As late as the 1750s, one such book, a folio Shakespeare, could be found moored to a lectern in the library at Yale. A notice specified that it was for the students’ “diversion” from the less frivolous reading of the real classics elsewhere in the room.

        The use of the book in the modern era was marked by several other innovations. People were now reading silently and alone. The monk in the gallery of the refectory reading to his brothers at mealtime was becoming a memory; likewise the university lecturer, insofar as his title means only “reader.” Medieval students had not been able to own the expensive hand copies of the learned works and libraries were rarely nearby or open to them; medieval disputation was a by-product of that scarcity. When the press made the pamphlet commonplace, in the 17C, one could contradict a colleague by rushing into print.

        Printers and booksellers, as friends, confidants, and protectors of literary men, were often led to publish daring books that would sell because they were scandalous. They suffered for it in various ways. Among them, Etienne Dolet had the distinction of being burnt at the stake along with his works—”a martyr of the Book.” Originally a writer, he was a passionate admirer of Cicero but not a humane Humanist; on the contrary, brutal and unbalanced, he was known to have killed a man in a brawl, like Ben Jonson. Books, books everywhere, like home computers today; yet a shadow of the old oral habits lingered: it is seen in the Humanists’ partiality for the dialogue form to argue a case in print. It is an imitation of the ancients and an echo of the medieval sic et non (pro and con) oral disputing. The genre seems fair, but shows the author-character always winning. The oration, more often printed than delivered, was an equally popular Humanist genre, also modeled on the ancient classics, its tone based on the spoken word.

        From these various aspects of the book important results may be deduced: print brought a greater exactness to the scholarly exchange of ideas—all copies are alike; a page reference can kill an argument by confounding one’s opponent out of his own words. A price is paid for this convenience: the book has weakened the memory, individual and collective, and divided the House of Intellect into many small flats, the multiplying specialties. In the flood of material within even one field, the scholar is overwhelmed. The time is gone when the classical scholar could be sure that he had “covered the literature” of his subject, the sources being finite in number. That is why E. M. Forster used to call “pseudo scholarship” anything not relating to the ancient classics—a rather harsh way to acknowledge the modern predicament. Lastly, in reading classical texts and Renaissance publications, one becomes aware of the ambiguity that has overtaken the word book. In the 16C and for a good while after, works carry titles that state the number of “books” within; for example, Jean Bodin’s Six Books About the Commonwealth. Using “book” for “part,” and “chapter” for a short section, reminds us that the parchment roll or sheaf that was a book could not be very long or thick without being unwieldy, whence several “books” in one work.

– Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 60-63