Tuesday, January 27, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie

I’ve just finished reading a spellbinding historical novel: Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie. Rather than another story of a literary genius (or writer’s significant other) as I usually like to read, this book pays homage to a great man to whom all lovers of the written word owe an unimaginable debt. Of course, we all "know"Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of mechanical movable type, or the printing press. He’s responsible for the Gutenberg Bible, which I guess I always learned was the first book to ever be printed using a printing press. It seems that historical factoid is an oversimplification, naturally. I never actually gave much thought to what an innovation "movable type" was, or how extraordinary an undertaking printing a book, any book, must have been.

Gutenberg was a genius.

But this isn’t his story. Not entirely.

Whenever we think of lone geniuses succeeding at overcoming insurmountable obstacles to achieve things that no mere mortals have ever done before, chances are they didn’t do it alone after all.

Gutenberg’s printing press was a team effort. One of the major players was a man named Peter Schoeffer. He had two recommendations for the job of apprentice. First, he was an accomplished scribe. Second, his adoptive father, Johann Fust, was very rich and very ambitious. Gutenberg needed financial backing.

Peter is a remarkable hero. Strong, thoughtful, loyal, devoted, religious, and extraordinarily intelligent, he is appalled, at first, by the very idea of a printing press. He loves his chosen career, being a scribe, and had high hopes for advancement. He can see how such an invention would destroy the very world he knows. It would take the beauty of the written word, the art of it, and make it hollow and empty.

And yet. . .he owes Fust too much to disappoint him. And as he works with Gutenberg, he comes to respect him as well and to appreciate what Gutenberg is trying to accomplish. As he invests his own talents into the process, improving it, making it into an art form of its own, Peter begins to feel that this is something God has put him on earth to do.

I wouldn’t necessarily have thought that descriptions of the grind of making a printing press from scratch, when none of the parts had ever even been put to such a particular use before, would have been not just interesting, but compelling. They needed to get the ink right, the letters cast from the right metals, the right project, enough letters, the right letter shapes, enough people to work the presses–there was a constant need for more money. There were political and religious forces arrayed against them. The whole thing had to be done with utmost secrecy. The Infidels took Constantinople, necessitating another Crusade! And all the while, they had to race to get the Bible printed before the tenuous partnership tore itself apart.

Christie gets at the heart of the personalities of these driven men, managing to humanize them despite the remarkable level of historical detail. Peter is the one who holds everything together, driving the work to continue, but he’s the one who suffers the most from emotional strain because he continues to care about the people involved, right until the end. The making of ‘The Book’ is fascinating, the making of the man, Peter Schoeffer, is even more so.

Today, when we can do so much with a computer and printer, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for every page, every image, to have to have been created by hand. What a monumental leap of imagination and faith it was to go from that to mechanical printing. I suppose I knew that, but without actually giving it the thought it deserves until reading Gutenberg’s Apprentice.


  1. I was intrigued by this one when it was published last fall. I think I may even have an ARC of it still lying around the house, but I never ended up reading it. I love how much your review makes me want to dig it up and dig in! My husband is a bookmaker and loves to talk about the history of bookmaking and printing, but having a fictionalized personal story behind it sounds even better. Thanks for reviewing!

  2. I have this on my "To-read" list. I have got to get it!