Historians from Francis Bacon to Karl Marx have ranked the printing press (along with gunpowder and the compass) as one of the three inventions that ushered in the modern world. But apart from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s groundbreaking The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, published in 1979, studies of print and its social impact have been bafflingly scarce.
In this brief but extremely dense history, lifelong publisher and bookman Richard Abel begins by identifying the key manuscripts that were available to Western scholars before the 15th century, with all their handwritten haphazardness. Cleaving almost obsessively to Karl Popper’s model of falsifiability as the means by which faulty hypotheses are discarded and replaced by better ones, Abel makes the basic but essential point that scholarship can’t advance if its practitioners are arguing past one another. Whether in medicine, law, theology, mathematics, cartography, or astronomy, access to faithful reproductions of the same printed texts literally put them all on the same page for the first time in history.
From the start, Abel asserts, publishers were not merely printers and distributors; they were advocates for untrammeled scholarship, defying both church and state in their quest to disseminate what they considered to be definitive texts. Of course, there were also purveyors of astrology and superficial entertainments, but Abel is speaking of what he calls “authentic publishers,” whose devotion to the “true and the good” still serves as a model.
Abel takes as his epigraph John Milton’s celebrated remark that books “do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” For a work that idealizes publishers as gatekeepers of quality, The Gutenberg Revolution is marred by a surprising number of typos and solecisms. Still, it is thrilling to view Western history afresh through the prism of printed books as the engine of knowledge. As we try vainly to predict the social and epistemological consequences of the Internet, Abel’s history not only limns a still-neglected history, it stands as a rare tribute to his forebears in publishing.