These are not exactly the words you would expect when reading about Johann Gutenberg. Nevertheless, this is how Hendrik Willem van Loon begins in Observations on the Mystery of Print and the Work of Johann Gutenberg (REF.BC.1309), his candid portrayal of the developments that led the way for the printing press, as well as a discussion of the role Gutenberg played in the story of movable type print. The book begins with a description of the early developments that led to modern-day printing ranging from the use of wooden blocks in early China to the eventual creation of paper as a mass product and the later development of a European middle class eager to have their share of the world’s learning.
The title then turns to the development of the movable type printing press itself. As van Loon continues, “At this moment, in the best manner of the theater of Monsieur Moliere, I should knock three times on the floor of the stage with my elegant ebony cane, the curtains would thereupon slowly part and amidst a rich array of noble flowers and lovely dancing girls, throwing bouquets, you would behold the solemn-faced figure of Johann Gutenberg, ready to deliver quite a lecture on ‘How I Discovered the Movable Type’.”
Nevertheless, this noble portrayal is not to be. Van Loon continues with a discussion of the question mark behind Gutenberg’s qualifications as the true inventor of printing. Here, the reader will learn about Laurens Janszoon Coster, Gutenberg’s presumed teacher from whom he stole all his ideas; and about Pamfilo Castaldi of Feltre, whom a few Italian buy provigil brand patriots claim worked with movable type long before Gutenberg.
Van Loon closes with the reflection that whatever role Gutenberg actually played in the development and popularization of movable-type print, “the art of printing was not the work of a single man, but was the result of the unconscious cooperation of a vast number of people of all sorts of racial antecedents.” As he notes, “Had not the Semitic tribes of Phoenicia given us our alphabet, we would not have had the letters without which we could never have given concrete and lasting expression to the spoken word. Had not the Chinese hit upon the idea of cutting dies with which to ‘print’ their written characters upon pieces of clay and wax, we would most likely never have been bright enough to think of carving images and letters into wooden blocks. Had not the Arabs conquered Samarkand, the art of the paper-maker might not have reached Europe until centuries later and without paper, there never would have been any printed books…”
The Reference Collection is one of three collections at The Center for Book Arts. The other two include the Fine Arts Collection (composed of artists’ books and prints) and the Archives (containing Exhibition Catalogs and the Center’s ephemera). All three collections can be viewed on-line via the Center’s website or in person by appointment. Note that the Reference Library is currently being cataloged, with roughly 60% completed.