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Since getting involved in the book business a few years ago I've given a lot of thought to the clever German bookmaker and inventor Johannes Gutenberg, who helped make our modern book business possible. Can you imagine what it would be like if every single copy of your favorite books were still being printed by hand, by monks using fancy quill pens to form each letter of every word carefully on thick sheets of parchment?
The making of books was so slow back before Gutenberg's day in the 1400s that the average book could cost you three months wages. If it took three-months wages to buy a book today can you imagine what a dent that would put in Border's and every other bookseller’s bottom line.
On the other hand, from the author's perspective, there were so few books being hand-printed and sold back then that you could probably get atop the bestseller list with total sales of maybe three or four books.
Those who claimed to know such things say Gutenberg developed the first method of using movable type and the printing press, which, they say, he fashioned from a wine press. Considering how many writers over the years have shown a fondness for the grape, it's a little ironic that the first European printing press would have that grape-printing press connection.
But historians have since learned that movable type printing and other popular things like pasta and fireworks were known to the Chinese several centuries before Johnny Gutenberg got in the business.
In fact, a printed book dating from about 868 AD has been discovered in China with the dated bookstore’s receipt still in it. At least that’s what they claim.
Some historians say Gutenberg's main contribution to the printing process was the invention of movable type. But, here again, we’ve since learned that the Chinese beat him to the punch. Movable type was invented in China around the 11th century. His original type was made of earthenware, which is great material for coffee mugs but it proved to be less than ideal for printing type. Like many humans in the printing business, earthenware just couldn’t take the pressure.
So, if Johnny didn't invent movable type or the printing press, what DID Johnny do? Well, he undoubtedly ate a lot of wiener schnitzel and sauerkraut and also made a lot of important improvements to the materials used in printing, like metals and ink.
Gutenberg developed metal alloys used for making printing type and he found a way to make molds for casting blocks of type precisely and accurately. He also came up with an oil-based printing ink that was better than any before it.
Once he'd done all these things he retrofitted the old wine press and began printing books faster and cheaper than anyone before him. And for that people like me are very grateful.
Like others in the book business who followed him Gutenberg never managed to make a lot of money. I like to think that I am following in that noble tradition, although I'm not doing that badly, thank you very much.
So now, I'd like to raise an earthenware mug of grape juice to the great inventor - Johannes Gutenberg - and his wine-stained printing press.
Oh, and one more thing - wanna buy a book - cheap?
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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