Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reshaping the World, One Book at a Time

Anyone who revels in books should enjoy The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press), a tremendous new history of what people--as opposed to collectors--were buying and reading in 16th-century Europe.

Explaining how the age of the Internet has finally made it possible to write this volume, Andrew Pettegree, head of the School of History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, says: “The more mundane productions of the press inevitably attracted less attention and admiration. But such books--almanacs and calendars, prayer books and pamphlets--were the bedrock of the new [publishing] industry. They also offer the most eloquent window into the thought world of the sixteenth century’s new generation of readers ... Tracing the sole surviving copies of these little books had been an almost impossible task. Now, though, the sudden proliferation of online resources, catalogues and search engines allows us to gather together a vast amount of data ... This book represents a first attempt to take advantage of these global searches.”

As reviewer Bryce Christensen writes in his starred review in Booklist:
Looking back on her early adulthood, St. Teresa of Ávila remarked, “If I did not have a new book, I did not feel that I could be happy.” In this history of the pioneering publishers who transformed [Johannes] Gutenberg’s new technology into an epoch-making force, Pettegree recounts the fascinating story of how new books found their way into the hands of Renaissance readers such as St. Teresa. That force, as readers soon realize, reshaped the world of learning, as affordable books swelled enrollment in universities and multiplied municipal schools. But the force of the printed word emerged far from the classroom, as printing presses become potent weapons in political and ecclesiastical conflicts ... Though readers gain considerable understanding of technical processes of publishing ... what they come to see most clearly is the tense political and economic circumstances in which Renaissance publishers operated ...
We’ll see if e-books can have anywhere near so profound an impact.

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