Ten Things You Didn't Know about Your Books

Adrian Johns
Author of The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making

1. Who invented printing? Given that printing is usually granted a key role in the emergence of modern society, its origins are oddly obscure. Almost everyone believes that Johann Gutenberg, a goldsmith from the German town of Mainz, invented printing. But while his existence has never been in doubt, everything else about Gutenberg is uncertain. There is almost no evidence of his character and activities. No book ever bore his name, and no one knows what he looked like. This obscurity encouraged the emergence of about a dozen rival candidates for the title of inventor. For centuries, even as printing made possible unprecedented progress in knowledge of all other kinds, its own origin remained both murky and controversial.

2. The most remarkable candidate for the inventor of printing was Faust, the legendary sorcerer who sold his soul to Mephistopheles. A simple confusion of names supported the tale: Gutenberg's financier had been a banker named Fust, whose name in Latin became Faustus. Connecting the printing press to magical powers proved irresistible and the story reappeared in countless forms—including scholarly histories, polemics, and even puppet-plays—throughout the Enlightenment.

3. Early printers were craftsmen. They did not feel compelled to reproduce an author's copy slavishly letter by letter. They were expected to use some creativity and interpret the words for their readers. The idea was that they must preserve the good name of their printing house and its head, the master printer, by producing a well-crafted creation. As a result, authors had to monitor the printing process personally if they wanted to control the final product. Readers were—and are—well advised to do a little detective work before deciding how much of a given book can be properly attributed to its "author."

4. Typography wanted to be a science as well as an art. Printed letters look as they do now partly because printers wished to make their craft into something more like philosophy, or even science. Following the traditions of classical architecture and mathematics, they argued that typographers must make letters only from combinations of geometrical shapes—circles, squares, and regular polygons. Over the years, they succeeded in standardizing the forms of letters. The uniform appearance of the modern printed page rests on their efforts to restore an ancient aesthetics.

5. Did a typo launch Oxford University Press? The most notorious misprint ever produced was committed in 1631 by the King of England's official bible printer. The seventh commandment appeared in print without the word "not," becoming "Thou shalt commit adultery." In an age fearful of religious heresy and moral degeneracy, this so-called "wicked" bible was taken as bearing a seriously dangerous message, if not a deliberate one. So, the printer had to pay an appropriately serious fine. Pressing his advantage, the archbishop of Canterbury further compelled him to publish three texts in ancient Greek, to launch what he intended as an extensive publishing program in the classics. The program was to be associated with Oxford University, and would issue works of specialized learning that the commercial market could not support. The initiative was interrupted by the outbreak of civil war and the archbishop's own execution as a traitor, but revived in 1660 when the war ended. The relaunched project eventually became what is now Oxford University Press.

6. These days we are discouraged from writing in books—whether they come from the library or from our own shelves. But the practice was once a widely practiced part of reading, particularly for scholars. They developed elaborate schemes of annotations, providing for commentary, cross-referencing, and rebuttal. Now known as adversaria, books containing such jottings are regarded as invaluable testaments to readers' thought processes in a distant age, and they are much sought after by historians.

7. Printers and censors were not always opponents. For the first two hundred and fifty years of printing history, printers supported government regulation of their product, the book. They did so because such regulation preserved a stable commercial environment, which was necessary to the development of publishing. The first country to eliminate government licensing of publications was England, which created a clamor when it did so in 1695. Because of the uproar, a legal replacement was put in place to restore the same sense of stability to the industry: it came to be called copyright.

8. In the eighteenth century, "lascivious" or "obscene" books were among the most profitable of all. In France, the "philosophical books" that fueled the Enlightenment included not only the works by Rousseau and Voltaire that we still recognize as philosophical, but many others that would now be labelled as outright pornography. And in fact it was often difficult to draw a clear distinction between these two kinds of literature, least of all in terms of manufacturer. The first printer known to have been arrested as part of a government-sponsored anti-porn crusade was Joseph Streater of London. He was caught in 1688, shortly after finishing work on the greatest book in the history of science, Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

9. Piracy of intellectual property is not an invention of modern society. Long before software hackers, third-world CD factories, and cyberpunk authors, the first pirates set up shop shortly after the invention of the printing press. By around 1525, Martin Luther could already find that the unauthorised versions of his German Bible were being turned out at a rate ninety times that achieved by his own printers. Piracy pervaded the world of print, making any book difficult to trust. Copyright was developed largely to discriminate piracy from authorized publishing, and to criminalize the rampant copying.

10. What is reading anyway? Descriptions of the experience of reading—the physiological and psychological processes—vary from time to time. In the Renaissance, physicians and philosophers appealed to magic, theology, and anatomy to explain the effects of reading. Nowadays we have recourse to psychology. Either way, the explanations reach to the deepest recesses of the psyche. We cannot simply assume, when we sit down to read, that we are replicating the responses of men, women, and children in the past. Keep that in mind as you read a literary classic.

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