Anyone who loves books and values the printed word available at a fingertip, cannot help but be inspired by Christie’s revelatory novel. While the first printing of the Bible is assumed to be the sole work of Johann Gutenberg, the author reveals the true genesis of the process that changed the trajectory of history through the mass production of books. That great undertaking, while imagined by the enigmatic, unpredictable Gutenberg, was not possible without the financial assistance and investment of wealthy merchant and bookseller Johann Fust, of Mainz, Germany, and his godson, scribe-turned-master-printer Peter Schoeffer, a young man who at first resents the loss of his chosen career path in lieu of apprenticeship to Gutenberg’s invention, one mired in secrecy.
The sly Gutenberg, a harsh taskmaster, is a man of extraordinary vision, in Peter’s view “a man who saw everything from a great height.” Traveling where necessary to learn the lay of the political terrain and assess the viability of his project, Gutenberg is bedeviled by the treachery of competing personalities jockeying for political influence in the guilds and the struggle of the common man to find relief from the tight-fisted grip of the nobles. More importantly, he hopes to gain an audience with the powerful bishop of the region currently intent on reform. Knowing his enemies is a crucial aspect in the success of a project that will revolutionize the written word, take it out of the hands of scribes, and print it uniformly for assimilation by more than just the wealthy few. The concept is so outrageous, so foreign, that few can miss the social and political ramifications.
Told from Peter’s perspective, the novel is steeped in the local struggles of Mainz in 1450 as related in an interview in 1485, the long, arduous path from concept to execution of “ars impressoria”—the art of printing. Made more significant by the author’s own printing apprenticeship and extensive knowledge of the history of printing, the passion of the creative process is captured in intimate detail, from the basic mechanism of the press to the intricate carving of letters, the grueling hours of backbreaking work by craftsmen pledged to secrecy and laboring long into the night. Given the religious concepts of the time, there was always a concern, “the fear that man had overreached, dabbled in deviltry” to mock their Creator.
Caught up in the politics of Mainz, the secret endeavor is a pawn of Church politics in particular, a slow-moving reform movement and Rome’s addiction to the crusades, expenses paid for by an increase of indulgences and tithes. There is no effort the Church will not seek to control and to milk for profit. As the work goes on, a great investment of time, labor and money, there is always an aura of threat—that the Church will intervene and either stop the work or turn it to its own ends, an iron fist that not only directs the commerce of the city, but the parameters by which the guilds practice their crafts. In spite of the obstacles, the partnership is successful. Ironically, what begins in common purpose ends in a bitter court battle, the endeavor falling spectacularly apart in a tragic twist of fate.
The tale is exquisite on every level, from historical accuracy to the descriptions of the actual process, made more uncertain by changing political pressures and the chance of exposure. Apprentice Schoeffer, while at first reluctant, comes to understand the breadth of Gutenberg’s vision and his godfather’s insistence on his participation. Peter’s trained fingers learn the fine art of crafting letters beyond expectations, the future growing beneath his nimble fingers. This is a journey worth taking, an extraordinary moment in spite of local politics and the internecine religious squabbles of the era, a project that frees the public, the common man, from ignorance and opens the door to learning unhindered by status.