In the beginning, there was the word. Then Gutenberg invented the printing press, and the rest is history.
It’s hard to imagine life without the printed word and the byproducts of the printing press, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and journals, and, of course, books. The printing press became a cornerstone for modern civilization, right alongside industrialization and the agricultural revolution. The press allowed growing numbers of people to access ideas and stories, which influenced humanity, allowing theology, civil society, law, poetry, philosophy, analysis of the natural world, and everything in between and beyond to be shared, debated, fought over, and savored. The printed word shaped modern life and continues to shape mine.
Books, pamphlets, and the written word existed before Gutenberg’s printing press, of course, yet publications remained limited. The papyrus of Egypt, the invention of paper and the distribution of Buddhist texts in China, the Mayan codices in Mesoamerica, and Greek and Roman parchments provided a platform to record events, myths, and life experiences, but only for those who could afford them and who had the education to read them, a select few. The Chinese printing process, using wooden blocks, resulted in wider distribution at a lower cost but remained a slow and tedious process. A mechanical means to publish changed it all, giving greater access to the stories, thoughts, history, and political positions changing the world.
In the American experience, the printed and published word has inspired us to action, to encapsulate aspirations for human rights, or to capture the desire for a representative government through one of the world’s most unique documents, or has inspired us as a call to action to end slavery, to vote, and to make life better for the poor and powerless. American revolutionary leaders printed pamphlets written by Thomas Paine motivating dejected farmers and laborers turned soldiers to bear the pain and suffering that “try men’s souls” and to continue to fight. Women gathered in 1848 and through a publication printed by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” Once printed, a presidential proclamation that designated a whole class of people “forever free” provided hope and changed the character of a war.
In these days of political and climate unpredictability, economic uncertainty, cultural and social transition, a good book is an anchor even as it provides an escape to another life, a journey to another time, or an answer to a philosophical question. I’ve been reading The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, a fabulous nonfiction publication that won the National Book Award in 2011 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. The book follows a humble and displaced monk named Poggio in his cross-country search for the only remaining copy of a manuscript by the Roman poet Lucretius entitled On the Nature of Things. In Nature Lucretius suggests that perhaps humans would be better off if they stopped fearing the wrath of gods and stopped subscribing to a hierarchical social structure. He wondered whether it wouldn’t be a good idea for people to pursue happiness in their daily lives. In Roman society, a world organized by duty and monitored by deities, these ideas proved shocking. The manuscript remained suppressed century after century, and then, one thousand five hundred years later, after being nearly lost from history, Poggio the monk took a long walk and found the last remaining copy in a German monastery. The discovery of the text led to its dissemination and a resurrection of its rebellious ideas. Some of those ideas led to the Renaissance. Some of them led to revolutions. Some of them even found their way into our own Declaration of Independence.
I think about Poggio’s long walk, and I wonder about what book I would save from extinction. If there existed only one copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, would I go get it? One copy of Morrison’s Song of Solomon, would I drop everything and find it? White’s Charlotte’s Web? Erdrich’s Love Medicine? O’Brien’s The Things They Carried? Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.? Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? Or poetry beyond Whitman, like Dickinson, Hughes, Cummings, or Angelou?
What would you save if you were charged with this great opportunity, this great responsibility?
Fortunately, we live in a time in which a manuscript’s suppression and extinction would be abhorrent to most, and we live in a time that a small press can encourage and give access to the telling of big stories.
Brian D Fors, Ph.D., Publisher