on 29 January 2005
This is an excellent book to read if you are interested in the history of printing. Eisenstein's thesis is that the advent of the printing press is the most logical point at which the medieval period of European history ends and the Renaissance begins. She shows how many so-called innovations in science, religion, and politics were directly related to the ready availability of books - not necessarily to increased brilliance on the part of mankind.
Eisenstein disagrees with scholars who point to the lag between the press and the beginning of the Renaissance as proof that the press did not make an appreciable difference. Books, Eisenstein says, had to accumulate in order to make their presence felt. The lag was due to a sort of scholarly catch-up. First the printers rushed to issue the volumes that many people wanted but had been unable to afford previously. Once those were printed, disparities could become apparent. Scribes freed from the tedious process of copying books had the leisure to notice errors and disagreements among authors which had not been apparent when books were scattered and rare. This process caused a deceptive lag between the advent of the press and real improvements in cartography and science.
The last two chapters of the book were the most interesting to me. Among other things, Eisenstein talks about the way early Protestant printers beefed out their catalogues by referring to the Catholic Index (the list of books forbidden by the Pope). Once Europe became split into Catholic and Protestant nations, the Index had the unexpected effect of boosting sales for books listed on the Index, making some protestant printers their fortunes. Not only were Protestants eager to read whatever the Pope had banned (and Catholic priests obligingly cited chapter and line of objectionable material, with the result that the protestant scholars were able to cut right to the chase), but many early scientific books on the Index were much sought after in Catholic countries, and with their printers under heavy pressure to forbear, Protestant printers just over the border made a fortune in black-market books.
Eisenstein's style is somewhat pedantic (which was to be expected; this is a thesis, after all). However, I give the book 4 stars instead of 5 because quotes are frequently uncited - a nearly unforgivable sin in a research book. We are frequently given rather large blocks of quoted text with absolutely no way of connecting this material to any given authors in the bibliography. The fact that the book is an abridgement is no excuse.