A Novel of the First Printed Book

Gutenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel, by Alix Christie, (Harper), 416 pages

As a novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice is good, but not great; as an historical piece, it’s fascinating. The plot is straightforward. Peter Schoeffer (all these characters are historical figures), an aspiring scribe, is called home by his step-father Johann Furst, who has become business partners with Johann Gensgleisch, who we know as Gutenberg. Peter is to be Gutenberg’s apprentice—and his step-father’s eyes in the workshop. Initially Peter finds the printing process spiritless, far inferior to the production of individual books by hand, but eventually he comes to see printing as a miracle, a gift that honors God. As Peter learns the printing business, relations between Furst and Gutenberg grow increasingly strained. The reader knows all this because the framework for the novel is an elderly Peter’s relating of these events to the Abbott Johannes Trithenius, who becomes a historian of bookmaking and printing (among other things).

While it’s is intended to be Peter’s recounting of his life’s story, the novel is written in third person, which distances readers from the central character. Readers are told of Peter’s doubts about this new form of bookmaking: “This wasn’t even work that in the end brought forth some lovely thing. A brooch, a chalice, or a gleaming monstrance could at least lift a soul above the flames.” Peter’s conflicting feelings as Furst and Gutenberg grow increasingly hostile to one another are described, but one never feels that one is getting to experience these events as Peter did.

As I said, however, this book is fascinating, a must-read for book lovers and historical fiction enthusiasts. Christie herself is a letter press printer, as well as a novelist, and the mechanics of early printing are described in detail bringing the process to life. The fist letter-molds were made of sand hand-impressed with a reverse image of the desired letter, and were good for only a single use, a process that seems to be almost no improvement over hand-lettering. The staff of the workshop shifts as Gutenberg comes to learn the different rates of compositing and printing.

Similarly interesting are the passages examining the different character’s perceptions of the art of printing and its purpose. Peter comes to see printing as sacred work, at first not realizing that the presses can be put to use for inglorious purposes, as well as glorious ones: “He had not thought of it before—the prospect of their art abused, its glory twisted to the traffic of the church.”

One can also see in the Mainz of the novel the church practices that will lead to Luther’s reformation in another hundred years: the varying ways that ecclesiastics wring monies from the poorest under their jurisdiction, the selling of indulgences, with money lining clerical pockets at all levels.

Harper’s initial run of this book is 75,000 copies, a substantial number, particularly for a first novel. Their faith in it is well-placed. The multiple layers of historical detail contained in Gutenberg’s Apprentice make it a book that can be read and pondered repeatedly.

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