Seismic change

The ‘Nuremberg Chronicle’ in an early printed book. Published in 1493, it shows how most elements of a manuscript book (running titles, script, text layout, illustrations, etc) were taken over by the printed page.

The history of the book may be divided into two big-chunk periods: the manual period and the machine period. On the one hand, the age of the handmade book, the manuscript, the scribes, the endless hours of scribbling, copying and recopying. On the other, the printed book, the e-book, automation, outsourcing, speedy duplication.

In the West, the passage from the first to the second period was swift and decisive. For a variety of reasons. Europe was ready for printing. The cultural acceleration of the 15th century, whether in politics, art, scholarship or spirituality was craving new vehicles to harness the velocity. The printing press didn’t produce humanism, or the Renaissance, or indeed the Reformation’s tidal wave of dissent and confrontation, but it helped turn them from circumstantial movements and trends into a continent-wide convulsion. Nobody likes counterfactual speculation, but it may be argued that the world would be very different today had the culture of the manuscript book, with everything it entails, remained unchallenged.

Nearly every feature of the modern industrial world is contained in the printed book: speed, efficiency, accuracy, scope, scale.

The impact of print may be measured in two ways: by the culture it created and by the resistance put up against it by the defenders of the old technology. Europe after Gutenberg had less and less in common with the world of yesterday, to quote Stefan Zweig. A new world was coming, with every printed page. And the advocates of the old world of manuscripts, though ready to rage against the machine, quickly understood the hopelessness of their cause. A new age was dawning.

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