The Justification Of Johann Gutenberg Paperback – 6 Sep 2001
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The Justification of Johann Gutenberg, Blake Morrison's first novel, a historical novel about the man who invented printing from metal type and thereby revolutionised the culture of the book in Christian Europe. His published output has been nothing if not varied: among his works are several volumes of poetry, the acclaimed memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? and As If, a study of the Bulger case.
Born 600 years ago, Gutenberg here is portrayed as an old man looking back on the personal failures and scant professional successes of a life driven by the dream of a radical and democratising invention: the printing press. "What I fear is that death will rub out what I have done, till not a trace of me is left upon the earth." The irony of this early admission is obvious, for print is exactly what remains of him, but the deeper force of the book is marked by the need to "justify"--to himself, to posterity, to God. Morrison's Gutenberg is, in some ways, a recognisable modern figure: his difficult relationships with his parents, his problematic liaisons with women, the sacrifice of amorous happiness to ambition, the struggles with financial hardship, the scandalous aura imputed to homosociality. These are very much the concerns of modern biography, here recast into historical fictional narrative. Larger social and cultural forces are dutifully sketched by Morrison, but ultimately his interest is in the man who dreams of being a "volume in eternity" who will be "assembled in [God's] library". Fame was ever the spur, it seems. --Burhan Tufail --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
A splendid first novel' -- Scotsman
Plenty of juicy medieval flavour a compelling and though-provoking read -- Literary Review
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
The book is written in the style of a man in his near-blind, bitter old age dictating to his young scribe, so it has that detached feel to it and a relatively stilted delivery. However, this is not unpleasing or intrusive, rather, it gives the book an appeal that it may have lacked if told in the third person as a story, rather than as a biography. It also enables him to speak his mind (as old men do), rationalising his youthful actions as 'justification' of the end result - the greatest invention since the wheel - and at the same time decrying those who wished to benefit unjustly from his industry.
Worst of all, he fears that the name of Gutenberg would be forgotten forever, with others claiming the work for themelves - we, as readers, know this is not the case and the old man can rest easy.
The bones of the book are true - there is some information on Gutenberg's life - but the bulk of the tale is necessarily invention by the author.
Nevertheless, that invention has the ring of truth - one can imagine these things influencing the mind of the young Gutenberg and spurring him to devise his later modifications to the printing process - specifically moveable type - that were to change the human world for ever, despite severe opposition from the church and others.
Perhaps the most outstanding point that comes across is the cost of books in those times; a Bible cost several year's wages - after all, that's the time a scribe took to write it - Gutenberg's invention reduced the cost radically and ensured consistent quality, no mistakes, an unlimited supply and, more to the point, affordability ... to the Church this was the very essence of hubris and heresy, if not devilry! Thank goodness their narrow minds did not prevail.
A very pleasant read.****.