printers aren’t people anymore


[ page 136  © 2012 by James Rumford ]

Twenty-five years ago, when I worked at a local museum demonstrating old printing techniques to children, I noticed something odd. Whenever I used the word ‘printer,’ the children would look at the press. One day it dawned on me why. To the children, printers were no longer people. They were machines hooked up to computers. It was then that I realized that 550 years of printing technology were about to vanish from the public mind. When these kids grew up, their world would be so different that they wouldn’t know what everyone used to know about ink and type, presses and printers.

Twenty-five years ago, I had no idea how profound the changes would become. Meanings of words would be altered like the word ‘font.’ Old words would disappear like ‘typeface.’ Such rare printing terms as ‘justify,’ ‘point size,’ and ‘leading’ would be on everyone’s lips.

Not only have terms changed in the last twenty-five years but our notions of what a book is as well. With the coming of digital editions, books now seem borderless. They are no longer defined by what is written on their pages. They are open to the world. Tap on a word and you are transported to the internet and to countless other books, thoughts, and opinions.

Format-wise, digital books are not like ink-and-paper books at all. Their pages are often continuous, as though they were scrolls. Page numbers, which Gutenberg never had any use for, are fast becoming superfluous. People now navigate through an e-book not by page numbers but by using the table of contents or hitting the ‘find’ button.

Pages are not fixed because the size of type, even the font can be chosen by the reader. In 1455, Bishop Piccolomini joked in a letter to his superior Cardinal Carvajal [car-ba-hal], after seeing pages from Gutenberg’s Bible, “these his eminence may read without effort—and without his glasses!” [quos tua dignatio sine labore et absque berillo legeret]. I wonder what the good bishop would have thought of today’s digital devices which allow readers to amp up the type to whatever size is comfortable for them, even change the font to their liking.

All of these changes mean books have to be designed in entirely new ways. We saw how, in the Middle Ages, the golden ratio prevailed and how wide margins made for pleasing books, especially when illuminated. Today the margins are minimal. And without ample room there is little need for decoration. But today’s books are illuminated in other ways: they can show moving pictures, read the text outloud, even play music.

The old ways may be dying, but they still effect us. People have trouble accepting new technology, if it doesn’t remind them a little bit of the old. We want digital readers to have a book-like shape. We want to turn virtual pages, even though there are none. And we want to see page numbers, even though they are of little use. Gutenberg faced the same challenges. He had to make his printed books look a lot like the handwritten ones. He had to leave spaces for the rubricator. He had to design type so that it had as many ligatures, abbreviations, and odd signs as the scribes and copyists used. He even had to make the first books bigger than they needed to be. But not long after he died, type designers abandoned many of the old scribal signs. They stopped leaving room for illumination, and they began to come out with smaller and smaller typefaces and thus smaller and smaller books.

We are at a similar stage. Everything is too new and we find it hard to accept all of it at once. But this is precisely what makes the times we are living in so exciting. We are in a revolution as big as the one started by Gutenberg in 1450. Each month there is something new in the technology that redefines what a book is, even what it means to publish or be published.

Publishing, for the first time, seems to be in the hands of the creators. Digital programs such as those put out by Adobe make it possible for anyone to create a book and publish it either as an e-book or as a book of ink and paper. Printing presses are no longer powered by brute strength but by electricity. There is no pressing involved, for some “presses” use lasers or ink-jets to put images and words on paper. And with presses that can print a different title every minute, the Chinese notion of print-on-demand is making good business sense.

These days I often hear that with all this new technology in the hands of the masses, the quality of books will go down hill. But didn’t this happen in the fifteenth century . . . at least from the scribe’s point of view? By 1500 there had been more than 26,000 titles published. Not all of them could have been high on everyone’s reading list. Is it not the same today with the millions of titles in print as well as the ones blossoming daily on the internet? Books are not like apples. One bad book doesn’t spoil the bunch. If you see one revolting digital book, it doesn’t mean that they are all just as bad. It is my guess that there is much good to come out of this revolution and that there are marvelous, unheard of things just over the horizon.

In the 1450s Gutenberg invented a press, movable type, and ink, and he printed books. From our point of view, it seems as if Gutenberg changed the world, as if, as I drew in my children’s book, lightning flashed through the sky to announce this monumental event. But I don’t think that Gutenberg saw the enormity of what he had done. He could not have forseen that literacy rates would go up, education would improve, and knowledge could be preserved and shared for generations.

Is it not the same today? We find it hard to understand all of this change. The computer revolution has put not just whole libraries into our hands but the thoughts, concerns, and discoveries of anyone who might post a blog or publish an e-book. If the changes now are bewildering, the changes ahead will be even more staggering.

I don’t know if the Medieval mind had any sense of change. Life stayed pretty much the same from one generation to the next. Even so, Gutenberg’s invention must have caused a stir, at least in the communities of scribes and copyists. Some of them must have forseen that the end was near and that their work was no longer needed. Maybe in 1450 the whole notion of change was . . . about to change. Maybe this is true for us, too. Within 25 years after Gutenberg’s death, there would be printing presses established in all of the major cities of Europe. Books, thousands of them, would be printed. Surely, this began to change in fundamental ways how knowledge was spread. Within 25 years after Gutenberg’s death another change-making event occurred. On March 15, 1493, Columbus disembarked on Portuguese soil and told the crowd what he had discovered. Within a few years, the whole notion of the size of the world and its inhabitants would change, and it would be books, printed with movable type, that would spread the word.

In writing From the Good Mountain and now this companion guide, my goal has been to describe the old world of printed books, of creaking presses, and to talk about a technology that has disappeared. When I was a boy, we still had to learn how to set type, learn the layout of the case, and to print on a press, whose jaws would smash an inattentive hand in a second. I also learned to type on a typewriter that made a clacking sound as the keys struck a ribbon of ink and printed letters on a page. All these things are gone now. For the young reader, such a book as From the Good Mountain must be like looking at a book about Pompei or Egypt. And looking at this book, filled with antique words and expressions, a young reader must be understandably bewildered—no more than he or she will be, I venture, sixty years from now, when children in the last quarter of this century ask, “What’s a motherboard, a disc, or a mouse?”