From sixteenth-century Venice we move back a century and travel north to Mainz, Germany, where a “madman” named Johannes Gutenberg has invented a radical new method of making books. Like any technological genius, Gutenberg needs venture capitalists to finance his workshop and skilled craftsmen and designers to turn his ideas into reality. He finds a financier in Johann Fust, a wealthy merchant and seller of manuscript books. Indirectly, this relationship also brings in a new craftsman when Fust calls his adopted son, Peter Schaffer, back from Paris, where Peter is making his name as a scribe, and forces him to become Gutenberg’s apprentice.
Like many people in the early days of printing, Peter is initially repelled by the ugliness and the mechanical appearance of books produced using movable type, an invention that to him seems more satanic than divinely inspired. But Fust will not release Peter from his apprenticeship, and the young scribe is soon learning to man the press and cut type as Gutenberg embarks, in secret, on the creation of the massive Bible with which his name will henceforth be linked. As he works, Peter too comes to appreciate–and in time to enhance–the beauty of printed books. Publication, though, takes longer and proves more difficult than anyone has expected. As the process drags on, tempers fray and tension rises, quire by quire.
Alix Christie apprenticed twice as a letterpress printer, and her experience informs and enriches Gutenberg’s Apprentice (HarperCollins, 2014). In this interview, we also talk about the ongoing transition from print to electronic books, what will tip the balance, and how our understanding of the first great technological revolution in books may prepare us for the second.