The Gutenberg Story

How the book got its letters.

This was my first original story, which I created last year for a storytelling session. Original to the extent that the composition is mine, but the research is courtesy the excellent kindle single by Jeff Jarvis - Gutenberg the Geek. I enjoyed the creation process and you can hear it or read it below.

How the book got its letters.

I love books. I am sure many of you also love books.

Well, who has not gone to a bookstand and held a new book - and held it lightly, trying not to smudge the cover with the sweat on his hand. And trying to scan through the pages with both his eyes, to soak in as much of the book as he can in the 30 seconds he has in the stand. And all the time hearing the rustle of pages being turned everywhere around him in the bookstand.

Well, who has not gone to a friends’ house and held an old book. And opened it to smell the yellow stained paper that only grows better with time, and gingerly tried to flip the pages ever mindful of the glue sticking the page to the spine.

We all love books. But have you ever wondered how the book came to be. How these letters, and words, and sentences and paragraphs and stories that we all love to read - came to be printed on this paper in this book.

Let me tell you its story.

It was a long long time ago - well to be exact 6 centuries 62 years ago.

One scribe would work hard for three years to produce one hand written copy of a book for one customer - usually rich patron or a church. It was hard, it was slow and it was painful.

Many had tried to print before. The Japanese had made engraved wooden block, The Koreans had made it moveable. But it was still so difficult with their script to make it work. Scribes – ones with a quill dipped in ink and writing with their hand - were still better than any known way to print.

Yet it was an invention waiting to happen. The Romans developed the simple Latin Alphabets (only 290 distinct characters – much less than the orientals) and the Chinese developed the paper, which had spread everywhere in the world and had finally come to Europe.

And it all came together in little town in Germany called Mainz.

There was one man who figured out how to make little molds of the letters of the font using lead, tin and antimony - so that they could all be line up together to make words and sentences and paragraphs and stories.

He figured out the perfect paper with the right thickness which could be printed on both sides after dampening it with little bit of water. And he made the perfect ink - from linseed oil, soot and amber.

And he put it all together, in what is now called the first printing press. It took him more than 15 long years, but he did produce the first book ever printed - Donatus Latin Grammar. With its crammed pages and squat font - it was no work of art.

But it did lead to his second book and the greatest book ever published - the 42 line Bible. It was magisterial - truly a work of art - with harmonious layout, perfect setting and silky black impression. It was of a quality that is rarely matched even today.

In the next fifty years, more books were published than what had been hand copied by the scribes in a thousand years before. And in the centuries that followed, the printed book propelled the age of renaissance, the age of discovery, the age of enlightenment and the age of industrial revolution.

So the next time you open a book – a new book or an old book, pay your own little homage to this man from Mainz - Johannes Gutenberg.