Authors: Nicholas Carr
Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, “as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.”
Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was—and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading. It was the technology of the book that made this “strange anomaly” in our psychological history possible. The brain of the book reader was more than a literate brain. It was a literary brain.
The changes in written language liberated the writer as well as the reader.
wasn’t just a nuisance to decipher; it was a trial to write. To escape the drudgery, writers would usually dictate their works to a professional scribe. As soon as the introduction of word spaces made writing easier, authors took up pens and began putting their words onto the page themselves, in private. Their works immediately became more personal and more adventurous. They began to give voice to unconventional, skeptical, and even heretical and seditious ideas, pushing the bounds of knowledge and culture. Working alone in his chambers, the Benedictine monk Guibert of Nogent had the confidence to compose unorthodox interpretations of scripture, vivid accounts of his dreams, even erotic poetry—things he would never have written had he been required to dictate them to a scribe. When, late in his life, he lost his sight and had to go back to dictation, he complained of having to write “only by voice, without the hand, without the eyes.”
Authors also began to revise and edit their works heavily, something that dictation had often precluded. That, too, altered the form and the content of writing. For the first time, explains Saenger, a writer “could see his manuscript as a whole and by means of cross-references develop internal relationships and eliminate the redundancies common to the dictated literature” of the earlier Middle Ages.
The arguments in books became longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging, as writers strived self-consciously to refine their ideas and their logic. By the end of the fourteenth century, written works were often being divided into paragraphs and chapters, and they sometimes included tables of contents to help guide the reader through their increasingly elaborate structures.
There had, of course, been sensitive and self-conscious prose and verse stylists in the past, as Plato’s dialogues elegantly demonstrate, but the new writing conventions greatly expanded the production of literary works, particularly those composed in the vernacular.
The advances in book technology changed the personal experience of reading and writing. They also had social consequences. The broader culture began to mold itself, in ways both subtle and obvious, around the practice of silent book reading. The nature of education and scholarship changed, as universities began to stress private reading as an essential complement to classroom lectures. Libraries began to play much more central roles in university life and, more generally, in the life of the city. Library architecture evolved too. Private cloisters and carrels, tailored to accommodate vocal reading, were torn out and replaced by large public rooms where students, professors, and other patrons sat together at long tables reading silently to themselves. Reference books such as dictionaries, glossaries, and concordances became important as aids to reading. Copies of the precious texts were often chained to the library reading tables. To fill the increasing demand for books, a publishing industry started to take shape. Book production, long the realm of the religious scribe working in a monastery’s scriptorium, started to be centralized in secular workshops, where professional scribes worked for pay under the direction of the owner. A lively market for used books materialized. For the first time in history, books had set prices.
For centuries, the technology of writing had reflected, and reinforced, the intellectual ethic of the oral culture in which it arose. The writing and reading of tablets, scrolls, and early codices had stressed the communal development and propagation of knowledge. Individual creativity had remained subordinate to the needs of the group. Writing had remained more a means of recording than a method of composition. Now, writing began to take on, and to disseminate, a new intellectual ethic: the ethic of the book. The development of knowledge became an increasingly private act, with each reader creating, in his own mind, a personal synthesis of the ideas and information passed down through the writings of other thinkers. The sense of individualism strengthened. “Silent reading,” the novelist and historian James Carroll has noted, is “both the sign of and a means to self-awareness, with the knower taking responsibility for what is known.”
Quiet, solitary research became a prerequisite for intellectual achievement. Originality of thought and creativity of expression became the hallmarks of the model mind. The conflict between the orator Socrates and the writer Plato had at last been decided—in Plato’s favor.
But the victory was incomplete. Because handwritten codices remained costly and scarce, the intellectual ethic of the book, and the mind of the deep reader, continued to be restricted to a relatively small group of privileged citizens. The alphabet, a medium of language, had found its own ideal medium in the book, a medium of writing. Books, however, had yet to find their ideal medium—the technology that would allow them to be produced and distributed cheaply, quickly, and in abundance.
SOMETIME AROUND 1445,
a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg left Strasbourg, where he had been living for several years, and followed the Rhine River back to the city of his birth, Mainz. He was carrying a secret—a big one. For at least ten years, he had been working covertly on several inventions that he believed would, in combination, form the basis of an altogether new sort of publishing business. He saw an opportunity to automate the production of books and other written works, replacing the venerable scribe with a newfangled printing machine. After securing two sizable loans from Johann Fust, a prosperous neighbor, Gutenberg set up a shop in Mainz, bought some tools and materials, and set to work. Putting his metalworking skills to use, he created small, adjustable molds for casting alphabetical letters of uniform height but varying width out of a molten metal alloy. The cast letters, or movable type, could be arranged quickly into a page of text for printing and then, when the job was done, disassembled and reset for a new page.
Gutenberg also developed a refined version of a wooden-screw press, used at the time to crush grapes for wine, that was able to transfer the image of the type onto a sheet of parchment or paper without smudging the letters. And he invented the third critical element of his printing system: an oil-based ink that would adhere to the metal type.
Having built the letterpress, Gutenberg quickly put it to use printing indulgences for the Catholic Church. The job paid well, but it wasn’t the work Gutenberg had in mind for his new machine. He had much greater ambitions. Drawing on Fust’s funds, he began to prepare his first major work: the magnificent, two-volume edition of the Bible that would come to bear his name. Spanning twelve hundred pages, each composed of two forty-two-line columns, the Gutenberg Bible was printed in a heavy Gothic typeface painstakingly designed to imitate the handwriting of the best German scribes. The Bible, which took at least three years to produce, was Gutenberg’s triumph. It was also his undoing. In 1455, having printed just two hundred copies, he ran out of money. Unable to pay the interest on his loans, he was forced to hand his press, type, and ink over to Fust and abandon the printing trade. Fust, who had made his fortune through a successful career as a merchant, proved to be as adept at the business of printing as Gutenberg had been at its mechanics. Together with Peter Schoeffer, one of Gutenberg’s more talented employees (and a former scribe himself), Fust set the operation on a profitable course, organizing a sales force and publishing a variety of books that sold widely throughout Germany and France.
Although Gutenberg would not share in its rewards, his letterpress would become one of the most important inventions in history. With remarkable speed, at least by medieval standards, movable-type printing “changed the face and condition of things all over the world,” Francis Bacon wrote in his 1620 book
, “so that no empire or sect or star seems to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs.”
(The only other inventions that Bacon felt had as great an impact as the letterpress were gunpowder and the compass.) By turning a manual craft into a mechanical industry, Gutenberg had changed the economics of printing and publishing. Large editions of perfect copies could be mass-produced quickly by a few workers. Books went from being expensive, scarce commodities to being affordable, plentiful ones.
In 1483, a printing shop in Florence, run by nuns from the Convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli, charged three florins for printing 1,025 copies of a new translation of Plato’s
. A scribe would have charged about one florin for copying the work, but he would have produced only a single copy.
The steep reduction in the cost of manufacturing books was amplified by the growing use of paper, an invention imported from China, in place of more costly parchment. As book prices fell, demand surged, spurring, in turn, a rapid expansion in supply. New editions flooded the markets of Europe. According to one estimate, the number of books produced in the fifty years following Gutenberg’s invention equaled the number produced by European scribes during the preceding thousand years.
The sudden proliferation of once-rare books struck people of the time “as sufficiently remarkable to suggest supernatural intervention,” reports Elizabeth Eisenstein in
The Printing Press as an Agent of Change
When Johann Fust carried a large supply of printed books into Paris on an early sales trip, he was reportedly run out of town by the gendarmes on suspicion of being in league with the devil.
Fears of satanic influence quickly dissipated as people rushed to buy and read the inexpensive products of the letterpress. When, in 1501, the Italian printer Aldus Manutius introduced the pocket-sized octavo format, considerably smaller than the traditional folio and quarto, books became even more affordable, portable, and personal. Just as the miniaturization of the clock made everyone a timekeeper, so the miniaturization of the book helped weave book-reading into the fabric of everyday life. It was no longer just scholars and monks who sat reading words in quiet rooms. Even a person of fairly modest means could begin to assemble a library of several volumes, making it possible not only to read broadly but to draw comparisons between different works. “All the world is full of knowing men, of most learned Schoolmasters, and vast Libraries,” exclaimed the title character of Rabelais’ 1534 best seller
, “and it appears to me as a truth, that neither in Plato’s time, nor Cicero’s, nor Papinian’s, there was ever such conveniency for studying, as we see at this day there is.”
A virtuous cycle had been set in motion. The growing availability of books fired the public’s desire for literacy, and the expansion of literacy further stimulated the demand for books. The printing industry boomed. By the end of the fifteenth century, nearly 250 towns in Europe had print shops, and some 12 million volumes had already come off their presses. The sixteenth century saw Gutenberg’s technology leap from Europe to Asia, the Middle East, and, when the Spanish set up a press in Mexico City in 1539, the Americas. By the start of the seventeenth century, letterpresses were everywhere, producing not only books but newspapers, scientific journals, and a variety of other periodicals. The first great flowering of printed literature arrived, with works by such masters as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, and Milton, not to mention Bacon and Descartes, entering the inventories of booksellers and the libraries of readers.
It wasn’t just contemporary works that were coming off the presses. Printers, striving to fill the public’s demand for inexpensive reading material, produced large editions of the classics, both in the original Greek and Latin and in translation. Although most of the printers were motivated by the desire to turn an easy profit, the distribution of the older texts helped give intellectual depth and historical continuity to the emerging book-centered culture. As Eisenstein writes, the printer who “duplicated a seemingly antiquated backlist” may have been lining his own pockets, but in the process he gave readers “a richer, more varied diet than had been provided by the scribe.”
Along with the high-minded came the low-minded. Tawdry novels, quack theories, gutter journalism, propaganda, and, of course, reams of pornography poured into the marketplace and found eager buyers at every station in society. Priests and politicians began to wonder whether, as England’s first official book censor put it in 1660, “more mischief than advantage were not occasion’d to the Christian world by the Invention of Typography.”
The famed Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega expressed the feelings of many a grandee when, in his 1612 play
All Citizens Are Soldiers
, he wrote: