The Justification of Johann Gutenberg

Morrison, Blake. 2000. The Justification of Johann Gutenberg. Chatto & Windus. ISBN 978-0385259842 [Book]

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With his clever title, implying, simultaneously, Gutenberg's justification of his life as it nears its end, his judgment by posterity, and a typesetter's spacing of words so that both left and right margins are even, Morrison sets the tone for this fascinating story about Johann Gutenberg and his development of the first printing press. Probably the invention which was most responsible for the spread of knowledge from about 1460 till the development of the computer five hundred years later, the printing press was a far more clandestine and potentially subversive invention than one might imagine, and its creation, as Morrison shows, was fraught with peril, financially, legally, and intellectually.

Beginning as the first-person recollections of Gutenberg as an old man in 1464, as he thinks about his end-of-life exile in Eltville, not far from Mainz, the novel establishes both Gutenberg's desire to be remembered and his loneliness. Life for the inventor of something as revolutionary as the printing press has not been easy. Always in debt, never able to repay his creditors, willing to sacrifice the woman he loves for his ambition, and at the mercy of both the guilds, who have a vested interest in having his invention fail, and the church which fears the potential power of a secular press, Gutenberg's entire life has been a fight. Creditors constantly take him to court, and he often has to start over.

In clear, deceptively simple, and sometimes lyrical prose, Morrison recreates the physical, social, and intellectual environment in which Gutenberg and his acquaintances operate. Gutenberg's first person recollections are sometimes ingenuous, usually honest, occasionally apologetic, and always driven by his ambition "to help words fly as far as doves," by promoting the successful development of his press.

Though the actual Johann Gutenberg is something of a mystery, Morrison adds muscle and tooth to the skeletal framework of what is known, creating a character which, if not realistic, is certainly plausible. Though parts of the book, such as a section about the making of type may not be intriguing to all readers, Morrison sandwiches the technical sections between more personal dramas, like Gutenberg's love interests and the machinations of his enemies to gain his machines. Homely details add color to what might otherwise be a black and white exposition about an arcane subject, while the archaic and formal language helps to create a sense of time and place. Every person who loves or buys books celebrates in some way, however distantly, the achievements of Gutenberg. In this intriguing novel, author Morrison celebrates them without reservation and brings them to life. Mary Whipple

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature



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Date Deposited:

08 Sep 2015 11:24

Last Modified:

26 Jun 2017 09:35


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