Lab #4

#Lab 4 Planning to Print

I love reading, always have, and some of my favorite authors such as Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen were first published in a time during which every copy of their book would have been made with a printing press of some sort. The production of early copies of books I love is not something I actually ever thought about until recently. The copies I have personally held of those authors’ books were made with modern techniques of easy, cheaper mass production, at a time where everyone around me knows how to read, and books are available at a reasonable price. Why would I question the book in my hand when it has become a common object easily acquired by me? I’ve only ever focused on the story I was reading. paying little if no attention at all to the actual object I was holding. 

It’s only after learning about manuscripts and scribes that I started realizing how precious and rare a book could be. But then I thought that that was such a long time ago. Those books almost didn’t count as books. They were artifacts of a lost time. Then, I saw the documentary about Gutenberg’s press, and read about the history of dictionaries. Finally I thought I understood how incredible a book really is as an object, and the significance of the history of books, and of printing. I was awed by the importance of everything that came with the printing press and I got to reflect on the steps that got us to where we are, with books for everyone. Watching Stephen Fry struggle through building a printing press, and go through the steps it must have taken Gutenberg not just to invent the press itself, but to figure out how to create type, and how the paper itself was created was eye opening. The ink, the type, the paper, everything came together like never before.

I was awed and I thought I understood what was so special about that invention. But I still didn’t actually really think of what that meant on a broader scale. Fry mentions how Gutenberg’s first client was the church, and how the printing press was not available for everyone for a while. And I thought, oh yes, books were expensive, they took time. Of course only the rich could afford them.

But when we started exploring type, touching pieces, and actually looking at what it involved to write even a single line on a printing press, it just hit me in the face. The time and labor that went into it. The printing press didn’t solve everything and made books appear at every corner, with how slow and complicated, I’m honestly floored that so many books came to life even with it. And it’s no wonder, with how much time, money, and materials needed to create books (even if it was easier than with scribes) that so many people were still illiterate for so long, and that not everyone could afford to print.

It also made me wonder about the dictionary specifically. Gleik mentions that a small portion of British people could read when the first English dictionary, Cawdry’s Table Alphabeticall was created. Gleik also explains that Cawdry’s dictionary did not spread, and dictionaries in general did not spread for quite a long time. Although I understood why people did not have a use for a dictionary when reading this chapter, it didn’t really hit me that people just didn’t have a use for a dictionary without books. That the availability of the physical object, made possible by the printing press, finally made a proper coding needed. Seeing the formality of the boxes of types, the work that goes into fitting each letter together, and the work that goes into typesetting and the seeming uniformity that seems needed in a print shop made me wonder if this orderly environment did not somewhow influence a little bit, the need to organize the written language into proper spellings.