Oy Gutenberg

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Did Johann Gensfleisch, aka Gutenberg, the master of printing and inventor of “artificial writing,” who altered the careers and work habits of monks everywhere, achieve the status he deserved when alive? The Justification of Johann Gutenberg, a novel by Blake Morrison, convincingly fictionalizes Johann’s personal need to insure his place in history. For lack of much solid information on the Herr Gutenberg, this book serves as the next best thing. The following passage suggests that in addition to his most well known invention, he was also the first design consultant (unpaid, of course).

When Mainz was torn apart two years since, and the men from my old printshop flowed out into the world, I hoped my name would spread with them. In idle moments, I have dreamt of a stream of visitors seeking me out, eager to see Gutenberg, the man who minted Bibles, the dung that grew the flower. Many times I have rehearsed the scene. A knock below. A Stranger announces himself to my trusty servant, Frau Beildeck. Is this, he asks, where the PrInt Man lives, the Press Master, he who conceived artificial writing? Indeed it is. Frau Beildeck ushers him up to where I sit among my books. Cap in hand, he looks ready to kiss my feet but contents himself with bowing. He is sorry for the lateness of the hour, but he has journeyed far, and it was not easy to find me. He is bashful at first – until I offer him a jug of Rheingauer, which Frau Beildeck fetches from my cellar, and his tongue loosed. He has lately set up a printshop, he says, but is bedeviled by difficulties. If I could spare an hour speaking mechanical with him – on how to secure blocks of type on the coffin of the press, what consistency of ink to use, what quality of paper, and so forth – he would happily pay me. Perhaps a fee should be paid me for dispensing advice. Years of my working life were spent in debt, and now men come to plunder the riches of my retirement. But instead I give myself freely, and an hour becomes two or three, and with my visitor too many to care to leave, I fetch a second jug, offer a bed for the night and ask Frau Beildeck to make us a rib and sauerkraut . . .