By Blake Morrison
London: Charro & Windus, 2000
ISBN # 0-7011-6965-6 (paper)
259 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2008

Blake Morrison presents this novel as an auto-biographical statement by Johann Gutenberg, justifying his life, mainly to himself. The 60 year old, retired Gutenberg, in failing health, dictates his justification to a scribe.

Author Morrison has created a useful vehicle for his novel. Not much is known about Gutenberg’s life and thus Morrison must speculate a good deal. What there are in the records are a number of court cases. Gutenberg was a very bad money manager, always in debt and often in court. Further, he had a few episodes of personal misbehaving, and those seem to be on record. Those slim leads allow Morrison to reconstruct Gutenberg’s life in this guise as his justification of himself.

I like the title. Johann Gutenberg, as Morrison presents him, didn’t have much belief in either God or an afterlife, though he talks of having such beliefs. They aren’t very operative in his life, and in his discussion of his justification he expressly denies it is to pave the way for an afterlife. Nonetheless, he wants to “justify” his existence, just as he justified type in his print shop. I am sympathetic to this view. I have neither god nor afterlife in my life, yet I have values and believe it is important to hold myself to my values, as the religious believer must earn his or her immortal reward.

Gutenberg, as he is reconstructed by Morrison, wasn’t a terribly nice fellow. He was obsessed with dream of the printing press, self-centered and fairly thoughtless about other peoples’ rights and dignity. But dream and persist he did, desiring to create this magical new machine.

But technical difficulties were not his sole obstacles. Gutenberg’s printing press threatened age-old traditions of church authority. Most scribes who copied Bibles and other religious books were monks. By controlling the printing of those rare texts the church could also control the public’s understanding of God’s word. There is a wonderful confrontation in the novel between Gutenberg and the head monk at a monastery where he had set up shop. Gutenberg acknowledges he will print religious books and even the Bible. This sets off a stream of criticisms of Gutenberg and he is ordered to pack up his machines and other things and leave the monastery immediately.

The abbot asks his about his work and what he will print:

‘What kind of books?’

‘Our first is the Donatus.’

‘A grammar-book. Not a work of God.’

‘Work to help children with Latin, so they can then read the Bible.’

‘But your press does not directly serve the Church, despite our giving it a home?’

I relaxed, thinking to allay his doubts with the plans I had discussed in secret with Nicholas.

‘After the Donatus, we shall make prayer books, missals, Psalters.’

‘This is work already done by scribes.’

‘A press could do it more quickly.’

‘But not with such beauty. When a monk writes, the hand of God writes for him.’ ‘And yet errors creep in.’

‘Errors are easily made and simply corrected. Since only priests see them, no harm is done. Or do you intend the word of God to be read by anyone who pleases?’

It was not a question but a reproach. I stared at him a moment while gathering myself. Those eyes stream with Christ’s blood, I thought. That hair refuses to grow because the God he serves instructed it not to.

‘To help men and women be literate, to give them knowledge, to make books so cheap even a peasant might afford them: that is my hope, yes.’

‘Is there not a more selfish motive — the making of profit?’

‘In Strasbourg, I made losses many times over.’

‘And here?’

‘My outlay has been modest. I pay two men wages. I am owed to use the smithy. I receive food and lodging in turn for tuition. Any profit I might one day make will be put back into the business.’

‘But there is still enrichment an offence against God.'

’The enrichment would come from spreading His word.’

‘The word of God needs to be interpreted by priests, not spread about like dung.’

‘I do not wish to despoil the Word.’

‘But it will happen. To hand it about to all and sundry is languorous, Would you have ploughmen and weavers debating the Gospel in taverns?’

‘If that is what they want to do.’

‘But what of the dangers? It would be like giving a candle to infants.’

‘Such copies we make of the Bible would first be for monasteries and churches.’ ‘The Bible? You plan to make the Bible as well?’

‘I have considered it.’

‘The Bible, to have authority, must be written by monks. not by some heretic machine.’

‘With my press. it will look as though a monk has written it.’

‘But it will be counterfeit, the work of an engine. And God does not inhabit an engine.’

He pronounced the word as though speaking of a war engine laying siege to forts. Perhaps he was right to do so, for at that moment, more than ever before, I thought of my invention as a weapon against the useless past, in whose citadels men like him were vainly hiding. I looked into his eyes, which were pinker than ever. Whose blood was that streaming there? His own? Christ’s? Some heretic he had tortured?

‘Once you see our finished Donatus ...‘ I said.

‘I asked you here because your contract as tutor has come to an end. I am told you have taught with much success. Indeed, the work of one of your students is now so advanced we have invited him to take your place.’

‘But my work at the press ….?’

‘We have need of the foundry for new enterprises.’

‘If I offered to pay rent….?’

‘We are a monastery, not a commercial enterprise. Radix malorum est cupiditas. Your presence here is awkward for us.’

‘If I worked wholly for the Church…?’

‘Please understand this is not my decision, but from higher up. the curia. You must gather your belongings. We expect you to be gone within the week.’

I stood up. He did not offer to shake my hand.

I especially loved the touch in which Morison suggests a strong economic argument against the introduction of the printing press. Most of us have heard of the religious fears that a Bible in the hands of lay people would cause various heresies to arise. But, another huge concern was that of the scribes, a large class of folks who earned their livelihood by writing for others, as the scribes Gutenberg uses in the novel to write down his own thoughts, and scribes who copied books. Their opposition to Gutenberg’s machine is economic and is presented as stronger than the religious scruples of the keepers of the faith.

A sort of fringe benefit of reading this book was to bring me more intimately to the question of the similarity of the role of the printing press in human history with that of the personal computer and internet. Put differently, how the printing press affected civilization in the mid to late 15th century is interesting to compare with how the personal computer and the internet affected civilization in the late 20th century.

Hand writing, the work of scribes was ancient, whether on paper with inks or on stone with chisels or papyrus, whatever mode. In the days before Gutenberg and the printing press very few people could read. Why bother? There were few books available to people and few other writings circulated other than private correspondence and legal documents. Thus people didn’t bother to learn to read.

Once the printing press made modestly inexpensive books available there was an explosion of reading and readers. Between the 1550s and the 1970s huge masses of people, especially in the more developed economies, learned to read.

However, while there was an enormous change in what it meant to world civilization that hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, could read, there was one thing that didn’t much change: control of the printed material.

While individual books themselves were of modest cost, the PRODUCTION of printed material, books, newspapers, magazines and so on, were quite expensive. Later development of radio and TV were even more expensive. There was an increasing freedom of expression for those whom the wealthy and powerful ASKED to express, yet the overwhelming bulk of people had no real power to have their freedom of expression heard by more than a few folks. Increasingly there were nations where an individual could set up his or her own soap box and orate, but there were serious limits to who had the chance to reach people, and this access was seriously limited in the print media, or in the 20th century, the added media of radio, TV and movies.

However, the development of the personal computer and the internet has greatly expanded the ability of the non-wealthy and non-powerful individuals to be able to be heard by millions of folks. There are many forums where people can post their ideas, and if other individuals decide those thoughts are worth spreading, they will be spread.

With the coming of printing there was the development of “experts” who were privileged to be printed. A great deal of that selection was a serious attempt to offer the best in knowledge and writing to the public. Another large portion was a successful attempt to control thought toward what the owners of the means of publication thought best for the public to hear and read.

Today the individual computer and the internet have dramatically changed this arrangement, and it continues to change daily. We are in the earliest stages of true FREE SPEECH, world wide, and we haven’t much of an idea where that will lead nor what it will entail for future generations.

That coincidence of the effects of print technology between the 15th century introduction of printing and the 20th century introduction of the personal computer and the internet (both are necessary for the effect on free speech) makes an intriguing comparison.

I have personally experienced this change and it has been dramatic. For most of my working life as a professor of philosophy, I was amazingly free to express any ideas and positions I wished. But, since I chose not to write books or essays for publication, the scope of my free speech was quite limited to the classroom and occasional public lecture. However, in 1999 I opened my own web page and since then I have been contacted by thousands of people who have found my writings and e-mail forums on the internet.

Those contacts have been in many areas of my thought and work – book reviews, philosophy, Haitian history and society, local neighborhood history, family history, travel notes and other topics.

In past times I would not have had this freedom of speech in any realistic sense unless I went through the censoring gates of the owners of print media and the other media of radio and TV.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett