Before the Kindle, Another Reading Revolution

Given that printed news did catch on so well, what might you say the chicken-and-egg process was like regarding print and literacy? Did one drive the other or were the same forces driving both?

I think print arrived at a moment when the impetus for literacy was already strong. By the fifteenth century there's a lot of evidence that most men in regular professions and trades living in cities probably had some measure of reading competence. More women read than is generally acknowledged: female literacy is notoriously hard to measure because women were not habitual signers of legal documents. People tend to count the number who sign their name against those who make their mark and treat that as the determinant of literacy. However as I see it there is plenty of evidence of female readers being active consumers of books in the sixteenth century, so I think it's just a phenomenon that's hard to get at, not one that doesn't exist.

By the sixteenth century when printers had grasped the potential of this group of new readers as potential buyers they produced a new, cheaper form of book—vernacular texts, not in the scholarly language of Latin. These increased the sense that reading was a necessary skill. So literacy drove print, which drove literacy: these people saw that there was value in reading beyond the pragmatic tasks of their everyday life.

Also, the Reformation was a critical moment here. Suddenly German printers were producing many thousands of a new type of book: religious pamphlets aimed at citizens who had never previously been invited to comprehend or participate in religious controversies. This was flattering as well as exciting. When this first excitement receded these new readers were passed onto new markets—like the market for news we've talked about.

So what, then, overall, was the most tangible cultural effect of print? Was it in the schools, in the news industry, or perhaps in what you call the "domestication of music"?

Music was something of a niche market. The market for schoolbooks, on the other hand, was indeed massive. How massive we'll never know, since many schoolbooks have disappeared altogether—they were used to destruction by their owners. If we look at all the books that we've registered for our survey of books published throughout Europe—and we've now found about 350,000 different items—about 40% of these survive in only one copy. It makes you wonder how many have been lost altogether or are waiting still to be discovered in some out-of-the-way location.

But one mustn't ignore that the mainstay of the market was always the market in religious books. About 40 percent of the total output of the printing presses in this period throughout Europe was religious books. So the most important cultural impact of print, I think, is to make reading a natural extension of worship. The move from religion as a devotion of presence and observing to one of study, reading, and participation—that's the critical shift in the sixteenth century and it's one that embraces all varieties of belief and it wouldn't have been possible without print.

Is there any evidence that changes in book technology during this period changed how people read? You mention that there was a rather important shift, earlier, from scroll to codex, or manuscript book form. Was the shift then from manuscript to print equally momentous?

A scroll is primarily a form of information storage. It was not well designed for frequent consultation, not least because it is tedious to roll it out and difficult to locate a particular passage. It was also impossible to index. The codex was infinitely more flexible, not least because the sheets could be taken out and re-ordered, whereas once a text is transcribed onto a scroll its order is fixed. With a codex or book the reader can flick back and forth, look things up, compare and contrast, and refer back. This is a different sort of reading. This is why Christians so valued the codex for their sacred texts, and the rise of Christianity played a large part in the replacement of the scroll with the codex.

The codex also suits the gathering up of many different texts. Many medieval manuscripts were informal anthologies of this sort—his was probably a necessary economy in storage when the binding of a book was a substantial additional cost that fell on the purchaser. So the manuscript book was both very flexible, and very personal. If you think of these positive features of the manuscript, print was initially very awkward, because it reimposed the inflexibility of the scroll. Instead of having this collection of manuscripts which you've gathered up on your own way, print offers you a prescriptive body of text which can only be one way. It doesn't have the allure and intensely personal feel of a manuscript made, in effect, by the owner by gathering together bits and pieces from different places. It was also very hard, particularly in the fifteenth century, for the new print medium to replicate the level of decoration that adorns many medieval manuscripts. Imagine going from color television back to black and white. I think that's how it must have seemed for many experienced book owners when they surveyed these new, unadorned printed texts.

One might almost say it's sort of like going from a printed book to an e-reader.

Well, I think one of the big problems facing e-readers is the sense that it doesn't feel right. People still have to be trained to accept this as a surrogate for a familiar and for many people much-loved experience.

What lesson, if any, would you draw from the transition from manuscripts to printed books, as we head into a supposed transition from printed books to digital ones?

Well, the major lesson to me is that the impact of a major media transformation is never what was expected, what was confidently predicted by pundits. As I said earlier, fifteenth-century scholars supported the new media because they thought it would make available for them many more of their sorts of books. I think had they known what would happen and the flood of cheap print which came on the market by the end of the sixteenth century I don't think they'd have been as keen at all.

We've been living now for 30 years with confident predictions of the death of the book. I remember when I finished my Ph.D. my Oxford tutor told me he didn't think books would last long enough for me to publish one. Yet more books are published with every passing year. I think in much the same way that print did not kill the manuscript the online and the print media will live together for many years. I also think we're a very long way from knowing the real impact of the online revolution. The research on how online consumption changes thought patterns is in its infancy, I think.

To be truthful, one can't be too apocalyptic about this. Scholars have enormous reasons to be grateful. Certainly without the new information which we've been able to collate in our database available from online resources I wouldn't have been able to write this book. This new narrative of print, paradoxically, owes a very great deal to the media transformation of the present day.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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