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Book of the week: The Gutenberg Revolution

Subtitled "the story of a technical genius and an invention that changed the world", The Gutenberg Revolution by John Man (Hodder Headline pound;14.99) 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 email" - 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 -nbsp; hardly anything is known about his life, other than where he was living at particular points -nbsp; 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 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.

  • Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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