I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this post you’re someone who likes to read books. You will probably agree that the printing press was one of the most important inventions in history and you’re probably already familiar with the name Gutenberg. But have you ever heard of Peter Schoeffer or Johann Fust and do you know what part they played in developing the art of printing?
This novel, Alix Christie’s first, takes us to the German city of Mainz in the year 1450. Peter Schoeffer, a talented young scribe, has been called home from Paris by his adoptive father, Johann Fust, who is investing in an exciting new project: Johann Gutenberg’s mission to produce the first printed copy of the Bible. Fust has agreed to help finance this new enterprise and is keen for his son to become apprenticed to Gutenberg in return. Peter’s first reaction to Gutenberg’s printing press is one of horror and distrust; as a trained scribe he takes a lot of pride in the beauty of the handwritten word. In the end, though, Fust gets his way and Peter begins his apprenticeship in Gutenberg’s workshop.
What follows is the story of the long, slow process of creating the world’s first book to be printed with movable type. It’s a journey that will take four years and result in the printing of around one hundred and eighty copies of the Bible. Johann Gutenberg’s name will be remembered by history, but Gutenberg’s Apprentice shows us that Gutenberg did not work alone and Peter Schoeffer and Johann Fust are given the attention they deserve.
I was not at all surprised to learn that Alix Christie herself was apprenticed to master printers and can operate a press – I could tell that this book was written by someone with not only an excellent knowledge of printing but also a love and passion for the subject. We are given lots of detailed information on printing techniques, the design of alphabets and the creation and casting of metal type. Because these methods were so new and innovative, Peter, Gutenberg and the other craftsmen in the novel are learning as they go along, improvising and modifying things where necessary. It was all very interesting, but there were times when I would have liked a little less technical information and a little more story. With Peter and the others facing opposition from certain members of the church, the need to enlist the help of the town guilds, and the possibility of their secret project being discovered, this could have been an exciting and dramatic novel, but instead I found it slightly dry and unemotional.
I couldn’t help wondering if a non-fiction book on the same subject would have worked better for me because although I never managed to fully engage with Peter’s story, there’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating subject. Some of the themes the novel covers are timeless and universal, such as the conflict between new technology and traditional methods. From Peter’s perspective, after spending years perfecting the art of hand lettering, he initially sees the use of metal type as soulless and lacking skill and beauty. Gutenberg and Fust, however, insist that the printing press will allow books to be created cheaply and quickly, making them accessible to a much wider readership and Peter gradually begins to understand this point of view.
I learned a lot from Gutenberg’s Apprentice, so despite having one or two problems with it, I still thought it was worth reading. I have come away from this novel with a better understanding of something I knew very little about and an appreciation for the history behind the printed books I take for granted.
I received a special limited edition of this book from Bookbridgr for review.