You’re never quite alone when you have a book. Opening those pages connects you to the thoughts of another; someone perhaps long dead, someone who maybe saw the world quite differently. But when you’re reading what the author has set down, their thoughts can merge with yours. You can engage their ideas, and in so doing, test and refine your own. Every book is an intellectual crucible, and this is what makes them indispensable to the progress of knowledge. But, up until around 500 years ago, the average person almost never saw one.
We’ve all heard about how the printing press revolutionized book production. The name Gutenberg rings through the rhymes of our school curriculums. But the printed book itself, and how it transformed our ability to learn from each other, is often overshadowed by celebrations of the technical innovation of moveable type printing. To be sure, that was a great achievement, but the real revolution was not in Johannes Gutenberg’s perfected press. Rather, it was in how printed books, as opposed to handwritten ones, obliterated the intellectual barriers between us.
The value of a printed book is its content. But the value of a handwritten book was mostly the object itself; the artistry of its script and adornment, its laboriously processed calf-skin pages. A single book before the days of printing might take months to make and cost as much as an average laborer’s annual salary. People privileged enough to obtain one often treated it like treasure worthy of worship. They might spend years pouring over its pages, reading them aloud, deciphering them, copying them, memorizing them. In the age of handwritten manuscripts, one book could preoccupy the bulk of scholar’s productive years, they were that rare. But within less than fifty years of the first printed book in 1455 – the Gutenberg Bible – more than 12 million books were printed in Europe, far more than had been produced in over a thousand years previously. And amid that explosion in quantity, the quality of what books meant changed. Individuals of even average means began to acquire and even accumulate books for the first time in history, and, from this new practice, an intellectual revolution grew. Once scholars could access multiple books on a single subject, they could contextualize their claims, weighing books against each other and against their own understanding, rejecting or building on the insights therein. In turn, they could mass print their own insights, relaying the progress of knowledge into the future. And, it wasn’t words only. Book printing empowered authors to clearly communicate mathematical, geographical, and scientific ideas through perfectly replicated diagrams, maps, and illustrations. Less than 1 in 10 handwritten books had ever been illustrated, but by 1550, more than half of all printed books were.
The printed book democratized knowledge by enabling any literate person to access and propagate it themselves. As one historian of the book, Elizabeth Eisenstein, so eloquently pointed out, there is a major difference between learning to read and learning by reading, and through the printed book, the floodgates of learning by reading were opened.
Let us journey back, then, to witness how we managed to connect with each other’s ideas so much more efficiently, how we learned to learn so much more effectively, and how the ancient trickle of handwritten knowledge was transformed into the flood of printed knowledge.
I give you the printed book, and how it began.