Book of the week

THE GUTENBERG REVOLUTION. By John Man. Hodder Headline pound;14.99

Subtitled "the story of a technical genius and an invention that changed the world", The Gutenberg Revolution is an infectiously readable scurry through tumultuous 15th-century Europe. In telling his story of "the third major turning-point in the evolution from grunt to e-mail" - turning points one and two being writing and the alphabet, with four being, more arguably, the internet - Man writes for the general reader. "Rather than plod in the footsteps of experts, I prefer to scan the territory, then buttonhole you with some of the stories that strike me as particularly intriguing."

As an example of his strategy, Man opens his book by quoting a wickedly funny and satirical description of Hall 9 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, written by Nick Webb, by way of showing us the vast quantities of printed matter being produced (most of it, in Webb's view, "a veritable Alp of dross").

Man has the knack, essential to a popular historian, of condensing matters to a few telling statements and, when bald data is involved, providing us with ready visualisations. "In 1455 all Europe's printed books could have been carried in a single wagon." Today, he tells us, that has grown to 130 million tonnes, which "would make a pile 700 metres high - four times the height of the Great Pyramid".

Wisely, Man gets only marginally involved in the various disputed claims to being the first to "invent" moveable type. If it happened elsewhere beforehand, that is beside the point. It was the Gutenberg printing press at Mainz that sparked the revolution. The lack of biographical evidence about Gutenberg himself - hardly anything is known about the circumstances of his life, other than where he was living at particular points - has allowed Man to develop his own theory about the Gutenberg business plan. He sees him as an early capitalist "striving to be the first to cash in on the Continent-wide market offered by the Catholic Church".

The febrile shenanigans of popes and archbishops during these years provide Man with an entertaining backdrop. For anyone new to this period of history, the choice of detail will be eye-popping. Man's method is to posit a scenario based on evidence and then to throw it on the mercy of the reader. Where evidence is lacking, he'll say so. "None of this is backed by evidence," he says concerning his theory about the Gutenberg coat of arms, "but it is less wild than some theories, and more charming than most."

The explanation of how the young Gutenberg absorbed the skills and the business attitude that led to the development of moveable type is compelling. Man draws analogies with coin-making, a trade that Gutenberg's father and uncle had connections with. But, in Man's view, the crucial impetus was Gutenberg's experience as a mass-producer of miniature mirrors while living in Strasbourg. The target market was pilgrims, who believed mirrors had the power of absorbing the healing radiance of holy relics.

Man argues that this venture gave Gutenberg the appetite for a big project, and experience in the raising of capital. It also involved the use of a printing press, the key ingredient of the imminent revolution. Movable metal type had been used several centuries previously in Korea but the language, based on Chinese script, was too complex to be readily adapted to mechanical use. Printing needed an alphabetical base.

The later chapters concern the hardware and techniques of the printing process, and the appropriation of the Gutenberg press by his financial backer, Fuss. Gutenberg immediately set himself up elsewhere, and by 1480, 12 years after his death, with printing presses in 122 European towns, the revolution had begun.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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