Moveable Type: Gutenberg, Ebooks and the Soul of the Book

Welcome to Brave New Word! I’ll be using this column to bring you assorted musings, bemusings, and amusings, and probably some other stuff that doesn’t rhyme as well, and pays more heed to the rules of grammar. To begin this column discussing the cutting edge of publishing, I wanted to start by going back to the start, and talking a bit about the very first printing press (I know, I know, bear with me here).

Gutenberg Changes the World (and hacks a lot of people off)

I was listening to a podcast the other day (the excellent Stuff You Missed in History Class), where the hosts were discussing Johannes Gutenberg and his eponymous printing press, and I started seeing some striking parallels with discussions going on today. If you’ve never heard/read about the Gutenberg Press before I strongly suggest you do, as beyond its status as ‘mechanical marvel’, the press’s broad social implications, and implications for the arts and information in general, are utterly fascinating.

In brief, by creating a semi-automated press, Gutenberg massively brought down the cost of creating and disseminating reading materials. Before the Gutenberg Press was invented in circa 1440, books were mostly illuminated manuscripts written by hand: The preserve of the wealthy, to be treasured, revered, even fetishised as objects. Because of Gutenberg, books no longer had to be hallowed objects: They could be made relatively cheaply, stocked and reused in libraries, moved around, stuffed in bags and read anywhere, even outdoors (please do not stuff Gutenberg first-editions into bags or read them outside).

The political effects of this are oft-discussed and I won’t go into them too deeply here. Suffice it to say, many academics and historians credit the Gutenberg Press with fortifying the minds of a massive number of people, catalysing the spread of knowledge, and arguably doing much to seed the tumults of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific revolution.

Along Came a Penguin

Fast forward another 500 years (please keep arms and legs inside the car at all times), and once again the game is moved on, with one Sir Allen Lane founding Penguin Books in 1935. By pioneering the cheap, quality paperback, reading was further democratised, as ‘serious’ literature that had once seemed sacrosanct could now be bought – not just borrowed – by anyone, from local non-scary shops like Woolworth’s, for a mere sixpence (adjusted for inflation, this is about £3). Serious ideas were available to ordinary people, to be read and discussed in homes, pubs and coffee houses. The tone of national, as well as international conversation was moved forward again.

Gutenberg Goes Digital

Recklessly speeding through history, now let’s whizz forward to 1971, and the founding of the world’s first digital literature repository. Named ‘Project Gutenberg’, its aim is in line with that of its namesake. Though the man was more of a businessman than an ideologue, the name Johannes Gutenberg has in time come to stand for a rejection of the notion of ‘high culture’: Art and knowledge were for the masses, not the privileged few (that this transpired to be a successful business decision for Gutenberg himself was by-the-by, naturally).

Project Gutenberg eschews the commercial gain entirely, and aims to store and distribute, for free, great works of literature in digital formats. The constraints of copyright mean it’s far from exhaustive, but the principle is sound. If a book lasts long enough in public consciousness that it’s still being sought well after it falls into the public domain, it deserves to be preserved properly. Project Gutenberg’s founder Michael Hart was the first to see the potential of digital formats to really bring home this change. The great works of humanity should be available to everyone.

The Soul of the Book

Every step of this transition, from the original Gutenberg Press, through the spread of the paperback, to Project Gutenberg and the eBooks of today, has been met with outcry from various quarters. Some of the criticism might sound rather familiar.

Gutenberg’s press could make identical copies of books in a few short hours (estimates say around 25 pages per hour) by using typesets. You can imagine the outcry at the time: Printed books? No scribes? Identical copies? How soulless, dull, all the value is lost!

Then there’s that upstart, the paperback. It took ‘serious’ books out of esteemed universities and libraries and into people’s homes and handbags. How outrageous! Literature should be entombed between hard covers, to be collected and cocooned by the ‘right sort of people’. Can’t be giving Jonny Factoryhand access to these dangerous ideas, can we (for goodness’ sake, please don’t think that I actually think this)!

As for Project Gutenberg, and similar attempts from other companies including Google’s ill-fated Google Books project – well, you’ve probably heard of the criticism. Whether its about intellectual property, cheapening the written word, or the well-worn complaints about eBooks lacking the ‘smell, texture, history’ of paper originals: I sense you’re seeing the theme now.

All these pioneers brought literature to the masses by saying: The information is what matters. I once heard it described as ‘the soul of the book’. You could scrawl it on toilet paper and it would still be there (plus you’d have awesome toilet paper).

Formatting Matters

Ok – let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Great layout, formatting and general presentation are vital, beautiful and ought not to be underestimated. Project Gutenberg is a noble effort, but many of the files available have formatting that is at best a little wonky, and at worst downright obstructive. The same can be said of many commercially available eBooks. This can pull you out of what you’re reading, and even make it hard to continue. I’m sure this will improve with time, but it does highlight the importance of good formatting and presentation.

Like most people I’ve met working in eBooks over the years, I love printed books. I own a small rainforest’s worth, with which I could never part, and which I continue to grow over time. But let us never get so far down that road of physical appreciation that we forget the core of what we love, and what we do: what matters is the words. The ideas, the stories, the thoughts – ‘ideational content’ if you’ll allow some Humanities academic lingo (and you probably shouldn’t).

Again – none of this is to say that form doesn’t matter. We should try our hardest to use all the tools available to us to enhance literature, to help reveal and expand its meaning. But when self-professed ‘lit snobs’ and ‘book geeks’ decry the eBook as another example of soulless modern culture, and start yammering on about treasured dog-eared corners and the smell of pulp and resin – remember that that stuff is great, but it’s all on the surface. Remember the soul of the book.

The Bind-up

Luckily, we live in more egalitarian times, and we no longer need to choose. Just as Gutenberg owed not a small amount of his success to the excellent formatting decisions made by his fledgling publishing company (the Gutenberg Bible was revered for its formatting, and arguably influenced all bibles in print after it), today we must do our best to make our eBooks beautiful, accessible and clear, just like their paper counterparts.

Of course, many eBooks are not free today, but prices are low (they’d be lower if they received the same VAT exemption as paper books), and almost anyone can now obtain almost any book, from almost anywhere, on almost any device (I’ll save the piracy discussion for another day). Information has never spread so freely as it does today, and unlike the chaos of the open web, we have the guidance and perfectionism of great people in the publishing industry to curate and help create brilliant books. As we do this, let’s try to remember the reason all of this matters: Let’s remember the soul of the book.

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