The Justification of Johann Gutenberg is an apt title for this marvel of a book. British author Blake Morrison is well known for his 1995 memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father? In his first novel, he chronicles a fictitious account of the inventor Johann Gutenberg. At a time when the Renaissance had just begun, Gutenberg invented the printing press, a vehicle that would serve to stir up a cultural revolution through much of Europe.
This lively novel is written through the eyes of an aging and nearly blind Gutenberg, now living out a forced exile in Eltville, a city not far from his birthplace of Mainz, Germany. He details his life and invention so that coming generations will not forget the greatness of his achievement. “Deeds, not words, are what we are judged by,” Gutenberg explains. Johann’s childhood was fairly unremarkable. Early on he had resolved that he would be “the first at something” because he was the last in his family and had to scramble for attention. The young Gutenberg was often left out of youth clubs because of his mixed lineage (an aristocratic father married to a shopkeeper’s daughter), a grudge he bore sorely. He learned nothing much from his parents and complained: “My father had meant no harm and done no good.” Much to the dismay of his parents, who wanted him to take on priesthood, Gutenberg decided to build upon his ideas of a printing press slowly. It was tough for Gutenberg to keep his invention under wraps while at the same time, trying to find funds to move it forward. Money had to be spent on labor, vellum, paper, and metals. Gutenberg’s constant struggles with debt and his obsession with his invention even caused him to give up his one true love, Ennelina.
The greatest inventions never come easy, and Gutenberg too ran into many problems along the way:
“The press would not stand firm or bed down flat. The type kept breaking off. The hand-mould would not fit right. The characters we made were blurred or twisted, and impossible to align. The ink ran like a stream or stuck like mud. The paper creased and tore.” Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Gutenberg emerged triumphant and “published” his first book. He later printed the Bible at a time when the church was afraid that the everyday man would now be able to interpret the Holy Book according to his own discretion.
Morrison’s fictitious account of the genius of Gutenberg is especially fascinating because it is not an entirely fawning one. The Gutenberg portrayed within these pages is a genius all right, but he is also a scheming businessman and often goes back on his word. Morrison portrays the inventor with all his strengths and faults. We watch as Gutenberg stumbles, falls, and makes mistakes. Yet we stand cheering as we watch the first book emerge hot off the presses. The invention of the printing press was inarguably one of mankind’s greatest. It allowed for the free exchange of ideas and spurred tremendous growth in many other areas:
“A book can be reborn. When one version of it dies through rotting or burning, another—just the same—rises in its place. Buildings fall, statues crumble, canvases tear, music is gone in an instant. But once in an impression is made in metal, a book need never die.”Amen. We have Johann Gutenberg to thank for that.