Book Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

Excelsior!!!

Excelsior!!!

A couple of weeks ago I went to Las Vegas, NV for the American Library Association Annual Conference, which was a huge blast. I still have major conference hangover from all the amazing sessions I went to on rare books and science librarianship, and from seeing STAN LEE IN PERSON!!

Aside from the amazing sessions, it was great to catch up with friends from the UT iSchool and Libraries. Two of my iSchool buddies and I stayed at Caesar’s Palace, which was pretty hilarious for about two days and then got really old.

I also LOVED the exhibitors hall because: BOOKS. This was my first ALA Annual, so I really had no idea how huge the hall was going to be, or what people would be bringing. I expected lots of booths for vendors like Elsevier, Springer, etc. and they were there. I got this adorable caricature from the good folks at Thompson Reuters, and then I discovered that publishers were there giving out free books. I will never pass up free books and it’s a good thing I drove from Irvine to Las Vegas because I walked out with 25 new books. The majority of them were ARCs for upcoming books, including the one I’m going to write my inaugural book review post about.

Please note: I’m discussing an unproofed ARC in this post, so please keep that in mind. I will be checking my quotations and revising as necessary when my “real” copy arrives after the book is officially published in September. There will also be spoilers, so beware!

I stood in line for almost two hours on the last day of ALA to get the last ARC copy of Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie from the folks at Harper Collins (official details here) and started reading it over the two ALA recovery vacation days I took after I got back because I could not wait to dive into it. As someone who’s spent a LOT of time studying and examining incunabula (including hours spent staring at the Harry Ransom Center’s very own Gutenberg Bible), I knew as soon as I saw the last copy sitting on Harper Collins’ booth shelf that I needed this book in ga-pcard001my life. Aesthetically, the book is beautifully designed, with an early modern woodcut of Mainz gracing the cover and a portrait of Gutenberg front and center. The copy also came with a letterpress postcard featuring a scene of an early printing workshop (at left) and I’ll be the first to admit that I love collecting all things letterpress.

Now to talk about the book itself.The story is, predictably, that of Gutenberg’s apprentice Peter Schoeffer. The novel is set up as the recollections of the aged Peter Schoeffer as he recounts the events of the creation of the Bible to Abbot Trithemius in 1485 at Sponheim Abbey. As such, the novel in its entirety is told from the perspective of Peter Schoeffer. Christie, who began learning the art of hand printing when she was 16 according to her biography on the novel’s site, says in the foreward to the ARC that she learned about the involvement of Peter Schoeffer from a news report “a decade ago” alerted her to the fact that scholars of early printing were beginning to doubt the monolithic myth of Gutenberg’s genius as the sole progenitor of the print revolution. Christie decided she “had no choice but to follow it and set it down.”

Christie’s fascination with Schoeffer is evident in the way the novel is written. Schoeffer is the story’s hero as Gutenberg is relegated to a secondary role and portrayed as a talented but deeply paranoid inventor with anger management issues. Schoeffer’s story (as told by Christie) portrays Gutenberg as the villain in his own story, responsible for the formation of the printing workshop but not, ultimately, for the major breakthroughs that led to the universal success of the printing press. It’s impossible to know exactly what Gutenberg invented, of course, and there is still some debate about whether Gutenberg actually used what became known as “the standard model” of Western printing printing from movable type created with a matrix for the forms. In a 2003 article, Blaise Agüera y Arcas discusses the likelihood that Gutenberg used matrices to create his DK fount and determines that due to the high number of varying letterforms, Gutenberg may not have used matrices at all, instead having steel punches hand-carved by a skilled craftsman.1 Christie hedges her bets and presents both methods of fount creation—in the beginning the type is carved and cast in sand and clay, and later in the book Peter Schoeffer has the idea to create the matrices that become standard in the printing process. Granted most of my knowledge of incunabula and their creation is related to Caxton’s activities in England, so I can’t say one way or another how historically accurate this all is.

Gutenberg is shown as playing both sides against each other in the struggle between the guildsmen of Mainz and Archbishop Dietrich in an attempt to keep the new technology free from the interference of the Church, a gambit that ultimately causes the breakdown of trust between Gutenberg and his financial partner Johann Fust that leads to the lawsuit that ultimately ended their partnership. The portrayal of Gutenberg as a singularly unsympathetic character only partially responsible for what is usually referred to as the single most important invention of the millennium is an interesting way to tell the story, and gives a new perspective on the seeming canonization of Gutenberg among important men in Western European history.

Christie’s side discussions of fifteenth-century history and politics are interesting, but one aspect to the story I couldn’t really get into is the love story between Peter Schoeffer and Anna Pinzler, the daughter of an illustrator in Mainz. It seemed like an unnecessary addition that only served to underscore Peter Schoeffer’s fanatic devotion to the cause of printing the Bible.

Christie’s bibliography is impressive and the book’s an entertaining read so on GoodReads I have given the book a 4-star review out of five and would recommend it to people who like to read historical fiction, especially historical fiction about early printing!

1 – Arcas, Blaise Agüera y. “Temporary Matrices and Elemental Punches in Gutenberg’s DK Type.” Incunabula and Their Readers: Printing, Selling and Using Books in the Fifteenth Century. Ed. Kristian Jensen. London: The British Library, 2003. 1-12. Print.

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