I ‘m reading The Coming of the Book, by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin (1958), who explain the arrival of printed books with an impressive attention to fact-based detail. Amazing scholarship.

Here are some of the points that struck me because of my own peculiar interests in this topic, in page-number order.

The “points ” by which we measure fonts were adopted in the 18th century. They are 144th of the length of the foot of the king of France at that time. (p. 60)

“…the Arab writer Mohammed Ibn Ishaq remarked in 989: ‘The Chinese write their religious books and their works of scholarship on sheets of paper which open like a fan. ‘ ” (p. 73). [If that 's how the West had written books, we wouldn 't have taken long-form thinking as the pinnacle of human reason.]

The book brought about a standardization of script. “Regional styles were the first to disappear. Then, more slowly the major forms of script were standardized until eventually the new roman type triumphed in the greater part of Europe… ” (80). Roman script was a simpler face that emulated the style of the classical Romans.

Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. Before 1500, about 20 million books were printed. (248) The population of Europe at that time was under 100 million. (249)

“Like their modern counterparts, 15th-century publishers only financed the kind of book they felt sure would sell enough copies to show a profit in a reasonable time. We should not therefore be surprised to find that the immediate effect of printing was merely to further increase the circulation of those works which had already enjoyed success in manuscript, and often to consign other less popular texts to oblivion. ” (249) [No long tail here!]

Of the books printed before 1500, about 77% were in Latin. 45% were religious books. 10% were on law. 10% were on scientific topics. (249) That meant there were about 3,000 different science titles printed. (258)

The initial effect of the printing press was to make the most popular books — the traditional classics — more popular, and to drive less-popular classics into non-printed oblivion. (253-4) “Especially often printed were the great medieval compilations in which …the sum total of available knowledge on all subjects was thought to lie… ” (258) The classics that “were already being read in the 15th century became even more widely known. ” (265)

Most of the science that was published was “of no lasting interest. ” Many of the science books were about “practical astrology. ” “So, printing does not seem to have played much part in developing scientific theory at the start, though it seems to have helped draw public attention to technical matters. ” (259)

“…at the outset…printing brought about no suddden or radical transformation ” although it did force the publishers to decide which books to print and which to ignore. (260) Many works we now treasure were ignored by printers during the 15th century and had to be rediscovered, including the Letters of Heloise and Abelard, most of Roger Bacon ‘s works, and the Chanson de Roland. (261)

“A desire for typographic accuracy and the constant search for the best manuscript version of a text … provided an immense stimulus for philological studies. ” (261) It also had printers searching for the authors of works that were frequently anonymous. Only now did artists begin to sign their works. (261)

By 1550, hand-written books were rarely used. (262) 30,000-35,000 different editions were printed befor 1500. Between 1500 and 1600, about 150,000-2000,000 different editions and between 150-200 million copies were printed. (262) By 1550, private collections of 500 books were common. (262)

To increase their markets, printers started commissioning and publishing translations. (272)

French only became the official language of France in 1539. (273)

Although printing helped some scholars, “on the whole it could not be said to have hastened the acceptance of new ideas or knowledge. In fact, by popularising long cherish beliefs, strengthening traditional prejudices and giving authority to seductive fallacies, it could even be said to have represented an obstacle to the acceptance of many new ideas. ” For example, printing didn ‘t help the public absorb or accept the geographic discoveries made in the 16th century. (278) [Printed books are echo chambers! :)]
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