Johannes Gutenberg developed the Gutenberg Press in 1454 by merging two of his key inventions: a printing press and a mold for making reusable, movable letters.In his experimentation of book development, Gutenberg desired to produce letters that were equal in quality to that which expert scribes were able to produce by hand. The first font used had 180-190 different characters. The most laborious task of printing was the setting of the text, but once set the printing was quick and efficient, producing upward of two hundred copies of the same page. Once a page was printed, the text would be cleaned, and placed back into proper storage boxes, ready for set up and printing of a new page. This method was so effective, only minor changes occurred in the print industry in the centuries following the press’s invention.
Over the course of fifty years, access to the printing press moved from Gutenberg’s Mainz, Germany, into over two hundred cities in Europe.With the advent of the printing press came the printing industry. Craftsmen such a publishers, bookbinders and miniature painters developed their trade in the industry which moved toward more standardized methods. Over time, the career of publisher became differentiated from a printer and bookseller. Often these publishers possessed well-rounded educations, allowing them to understand literature of both past and present.Due to population concentration and higher literacy rates, publishing centers developed in major cities. In the sixteenth century, six major markets (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, and England) were responsible for ninety-five percent of all books published in Latin. Due to the inherent financial risk of book production, publishers maintained strict controls and developed their own industry regulations. Indeed, the European book market’s protective measures were in place before the Reformation.
The first fifty years of the Press’s existence produced manuscripts primarily written in Latin. These works were addressed to and accessible for learned audiences comprised of scholars and clerics. Due to high illiteracy rates and prohibitive costs of printed works, the sixteenth century commoner could never imagine reading published words. During the Reformation, limited accessibility and comprehension of printed materials began to shift both in location and demographics. The catalyst for this shift came in the form of a German priest and theologian named Martin Luther, who was passionate to bring about reformation to the abusive practices of the Catholic Church. “Luther did not set out to advance the cause of the printing press. But in the process of spreading the Gospel and defending the Reformation doctrines, he and his co-reformers brought about a print revolution which would change the course of history.”
It’s been 500 years since the rise of the printing press and the Reformation. I wonder if the Luther-driven printing industry could ever have imagined a day when books would be so prolific that they could be found in people’s basements, garages, and garbage bins? Could they have envisioned a day when bookshelves housed not one Bible, but many, and in numerous translations? Or more unimaginable, that people would be encouraged to not read the books, to skim the books, and to simply locate the books amongst others?
Pierre Bayard, professor of French literature at University of Paris VIII and a psychoanalyst, tackles the sometimes shameful and often complex relationship that has developed throughout history between readers and their books. In his classic, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, he acknowledges how the system of book reading is repressive and filled with heavy obligations. He desires to eliminate the guilt that accompanies one’s admission of not having read a specific book or even books in general.In his attempt to encourage readers to be liberated creatives, he equips them with a handful of “tools” to enable them to communicate about books they’ve never heard of, have only skimmed, have heard about, or have completely read and forgotten.These tools include: “listening to the potentialities of the work, analyzing its ever changing content, paying attention to others and their reactions, and taking charge of a gripping narrative.”The goal of Bayard’s instruction, “is to reveal to students what is truly essential: the world of their own creation…(or) self-innovation…and to assist others in overcoming their fear of culture, and in daring to leave it behind to begin to write.”
While this objective seems noble, I wonder what is missed in the self-innovation process when historical and contemporary voices are silenced? As I consider the history of why we have so many texts at our fingertips, it seems a disservice to our communities to not read books simply for our own self-innovation. In fact, this suggestion, given from a place of privilege, power, and platform, is in opposition to why the Gospel was made available for everyone to read. The words in Scripture, as well as countless other books, have been formative in the lives of generations of readers, as they reveal history and hope, from diverse and divine perspectives.
Who would I be without the lessons learned from Abraham, Jacob, Ruth, and Mary? How would I have discovered my inner mystic without having read the words of Julian of Norwich and Brother Lawrence? What transformational truths I would have missed if I had merely placed Parker Palmer and Leighton Ford’s books on the shelf with the mystics of old? What if I had simply let the Bible sit with other religious texts, or only skimmed its pages? Indeed, I would have missed the life-altering experience of hearing God whisper, “Come, follow me.” Yet still, I have a couple stacks of books, mostly gifted to me, that I likely will never read, simply because they fall into the category of popular Christian self-help, where a glimpse at the title and the table of contents appeases any curiosity I might have had about what lies within the pages.
Reading, itself, is a transformative endeavor.
Choosing what to read or not read, and to what extent, is also a transformative endeavor.
It would seem then, what is missing in Bayard’s book is mention of the importance of the role of discernment, or the ability to judge well.When is it appropriate to jump into a book with both feet, allowing oneself to be immersed in all the book’s goodness, or when do we just look at the book from a distance, call it good, and walk away? Thus, in the process of becoming our truest, most creative, and life-giving selves, “To read, or not to read?” – that is the question that must be asked and answered by each and every reader regarding the countless printed or digital communication sources we encounter each and every day.
Louise Chipley Slavicek. “Martin Luther and the Printing Revolution,” Calliope9, Issue 9 (May 1999): 24.
Author unknown. “The Printing Press: A Development That Transformed the World,” Calliope21, Issue 8 (May 2011): 6-7.
Mark U. Edwards. Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther(Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1994) 15.
Louise W. Holborn. “Printing and the Growth of a Protestant Movement in Germany from 1517 to 1524,” Church History11, Number 2 (June 1942): 125.
Andrew Pettegree. “Books and Printing,” in Reformation and Early Modern Europe: A Guide to Research Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, Vol 79(Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2008) 437, 445.
Trevor Zweck. “Luther and the Mass Media” Lutheran Theological Journal 17, Number 3 (December 1983): 94.
Pierre Bayard. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read(New York: NY: Bloomsbury, 2007) xvii-xviii.
Bayard, 182 and Table of Contents.
I may have missed mention of this while skimming this text. This is a funny more than a confession;)