Book Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice ISBN 9781443433839

Book Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice ISBN 9781443433839

This book is available at Livres Trois Canons – the English Bookstore in Quebec City at Place Naviles.

Title: Gutenberg’s Apprentice
Author: Alix Christie
ISBN: 9781443433839
Retail Price: $24.99
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

Review by John Spychka

“In principo erat Verbum…
In the beginning was the Word” (391) 

If you always thought Johann Gutenberg published the Gutenberg Bible in 1454 using the world’s first movable-type printing press that he invented, you wouldn’t be alone. Most of the world would probably be on your side. Until now that is. Recently, a small but growing body of research has surfaced that sheds some light on Gutenberg’s contribution to the printing press itself as well as to the so-called Gutenberg Bible, the western world’s first bound book printed with movable metal type.

In the 1450’s change was in the air. There was a new pope, Nicholas V, who had every intention to increase the church’s coffers and to carry on the church’s ubiquitous presence in the lives and minds of the people. In this pre-enlightenment era, thinking and reason were based on Christian values and the church wanted to keep it that way. Yet, the seeds of secular thought were being planted. The 15th century was also a time of unparalleled thirst for knowledge in the form of books. The accessibility of this knowledge was still very limited to the church and the higher learning institutions, but demand was increasing along with the desire of the middle class and the masses to learn through books, a hitherto mysterious, mystical medium. Thus, so-called scholar-scribes were in demand to copy the classics by hand, one by one.

Enter Peter Schoeffer, the novel’s protagonist. Peter is one such scholar-scribe. He was trained from a young age to be a scribe, and his work is much more than his passion. It is his calling. Christie describes how Peter, and the other scholar-scribes, must have felt when at work:

“He breathed, and wrote, and in the writing felt it enter him: the stillness at the center of all things. The stillness and the soaring freedom of the Word. Not only God’s, but all the wisdom He imparted to those willing to receive it” (43).

Not only is this a fine example of Christie’s writing talent — what magnificent prose! — it also illustrates how religious thought permeated the 15th century mindset. As the novel progresses, Peter struggles to understand his true calling. Is he to leave behind the old way of writing: the hand, the parchment, the ruler, the ink? That very process that brought him closer to God. And leave it behind for what? For some mechanical, soulless process void of any human touch. After working with Gutenberg for a year, Peter was tasked to design and cast a smaller, finer type for a missal that had been commissioned by Archbishop Dietrich. After printing the first page, Peter has an aha! moment:

“That was the moment it all changed. Peter saw it clearly at the time. There are in every life some moments that stand out, as if embossed—moments when a man can sense the hand of God. That day, for the first time, the scribe asked—first in shock, then gradually with disbelief, and bashful, dread-filled pride—if what His servant Peter did there, in the Hof zum Gutenberg, might be in fact what He intended” (104).

That was the moment Peter discovered that he had to leave behind his horn of ink, quills and reeds, and bone, chalk, and chamois (10) for something much larger, something larger than himself. That was the moment he began to fathom the potential ars impressoria (19) had to change not just the world around Mainz but all of western civilization.

Enter Johann Gutenberg, the novel’s antagonist, who appears torn between a profound desire to create and an inborn reverence for the religious limitations that surround him. Gutenberg is the boss without question. In modern terms, we would call him an entrepreneur. Gutenberg’s actions and reactions in the novel paint him as irascible, impatient, conniving, and totalitarian. Yet, at the same time, he was a politician and businessman, and a charismatic one at that; people came to him “like bees to nectar” (99). He was a leader.

But to say Gutenberg is the antagonist in Gutenberg’s Apprentice is not entirely accurate. He is not the villain. However, throughout the novel, there is palpable tension and conflict between Gutenberg and Schoeffer, between Gutenberg and Johann Fust — Gutenberg’s financier and Peter’s foster father — between Gutenberg and Archbishop Dietrich, and between Gutenberg and the guilds in Mainz, of which Peter’s uncle is the leader. This is not a battle between good versus evil but more a product of the times or a classical battle between the old and the new. As a visionary and innovator, Gutenberg faced resistance from the establishment and those who wanted to maintain the status quo. Everything had to be done in secret. Only a few people knew for sure what was happening in the Hof zum Gutenberg.

Indeed, inventions of such magnitude, inventions that literally changed the world, do have their detractors and naysayers that need to be dealt with. Ars impressoria was no exception. Gutenberg was like the founder of a start-up, financed to the hilt, paranoid that someone would steal his idea before he finished, fending off government and regulators (the church and the guild in this case), and even doubtful at times as the months of printing the Bible turned into years. Would they ever finish? At one point in November 1453, with Peter in charge, Gutenberg simply left Mainz to go “prospecting” as he put it (249).

Therein lies the rub. As the printing the Gutenberg Bible worn on, Gutenberg left much of the work to Peter Schoeffer while he pursued other business interests. It was Peter and the small crew of smiths, typesetters, and pressmen who toiled day in and day out in the heat of the summer and cold of the winter to create the Bible, who frantically hid the proofs when the royal guards came to seize Gutenberg’s business, and who laboured in confinement for endless hours while the citizens of Mainz pursued their normal lives. Consider as well that Johann Fust, Gutenberg’s financier, kept pouring money into this venture with no guarantee of any return. Fust’s funds kept the project alive. Could the Gutenberg Bible have been printed without Fust’s involvement? The mid-1450’s was a time of famine and economical downturn. Could Gutenberg have found other investors if Fust had backed out? Christie presents a convincing case, albeit fictional, that the names of Schoeffer and Fust should be synonymous with the Gutenberg Bible.

This non-linear narrative is so well-written that the reader begins to question whether the novel is historical fiction or realistic fiction. Christie draws the reader into this fascinating story with clear, concise details and a plot line that will keep any reader’s attention well into the night. Her novel is structured around the seasons and, obviously, around the religious traditions and observances of the time. She skillfully builds believable characters that come alive and in so doing is, perhaps, rewriting history. After all, as much as history attempts to reproduce the facts it will always remain fictitious at some point. But Christie’s novel does propose an interesting interpretation of what could have happened in the 1450s. The reader gets taken away by the story and rallies behind Peter and the crew as they fight impossible odds in an attempt to finish printing the western world’s first bound book printed with movable metal type.

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