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09 May 2017 @ 02:35 pm
Review of "Gutenberg's Europe: The Book and the Invention of Western Modernity" by Frédéric Barbier  
This is a fascinating read, but quite a tough one. For one thing it's been written by an academic for academics, which means he doesn't feel required to stop and explain, say, concepts like the semiotic triangle, or throwaway references like "we need think only of Sidonius Apollinaris" (well yes, I think of him constantly, or might do if I had a clue who he was). Secondly, it talks a great deal about the arcane processes of printing and book-binding, in the terminology of those crafts, and while admittedly he explains said terms when they first appear, if your memory is like mine, you will find yourself, next time they crop up, thinking "what the hell was that?" And since they mostly don't appear in the index, it isn't easy to refresh your memory. Nothing would have been more helpful than a glossary of printing terms. I'd have liked more illustrations too, though some of those that do appear are enchanting, notably the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral poking up through the margin of a page in the Chronicle of Nuremberg.

I found I couldn't read it in large chunks without my head starting to swim, but once you get into it, there are some really thought-provoking and illuminating observations on things you might never have thought of in the way they appear here, and particularly the relationships between different developments. The link, for instance, between the rise of silent reading and the representation in signs of punctuation. The way silent reading turned the whole act of reading into something more private, less social, even anti-social, and enabled each individual reader to put his own slant on a text. The impetus which the introduction into Europe (from China) of playing cards gave to mass production of texts and images. The way different fonts evolved for different texts - Gothic, at first, for devotional works, Antiqua and other roman fonts for secular romances. Those who, like me, didn't realise that fonts were sometimes named after people may like to give Messrs Garamont and Bembo a wave in passing...

In his foreword, Barbier says he hopes "by a discussion of the very first media revolution, that of Gutenberg in the mid fifteenth century, to offer some insights into the media revolution of the early twenty-first century". Oddly enough, and despite his use of such terms as hardware and software in the 15th-century printing context, I don't think much of a likeness does emerge between the two. It's true that the internet has opened up a form of self-publishing to huge numbers of people who didn't have access to it before, in the same way that the availability of printed books and their relative cheapness compared with manuscripts hugely widened the audience for texts in its time. But the more this history conveys of the print revolution, its entrepreneurial spirit, the sudden spread of knowledge, the ability to disseminate news (and propaganda) with an unheard-of immediacy via leaflets and posters, the sheer excitement of being able to lay one's hands on a book, the less important the online revolution looks by comparison.
Sally M: books 1sallymn on May 10th, 2017 10:09 am (UTC)
Sounds like the sort of book I would definitely want, buy and slog my way through....