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As real as today,
By A Customer
This review is from: Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words (Hardcover)
One of the most delicate tasks when writing about history is to remain rigorous as to the facts while transporting the reader into scenes that feel like they are happening right now, just outside the door, the two-team oxcarts as real as today's FedEx trucks.
As his compatriots have before him, Mr. Man had relatively little hard fact to work with. For all that Gutenberg did for the profusion of the word, he left behind precious few of his own. Little is known about him until the 1440s, by which time he was somewhere in his 40s. He already was renowned for merging the techniques of the coinage trade with the casting of convex mirrorlike buttons, producing thereby countless medallions then in great demand by the trinket trade along pilgrimage routes. One of grander versions of these mirrors is depicted in Jan Van Eyck's "Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini." Think of Gutenberg as having devised the latest thing in 15th century Sai Baba buttons. Frippery perhaps this was, but it led to the development of modern type casting, the key element in the evolution of moveable type.
Neither Gutenberg nor even the Western devotion to practical technique were the first at this. At the other end of the Silk Road, as far on it one could get without walking into the sea, a genius surpassing even Gutenberg, Sejong by name, devised both moveable type *and* a written alphabet where "even the sound of the winds, the cry of the crane and the barking of the dog-all may be written." Fate-blessed Sejong was given not merely his intellect and inventiveness, but also the title "Emperor" before his name. This gave him no end of advantage over the average type founder and alphabet inventor. Nor was he the first: the 28-letter Hangul ("Great Script") that he devised was based in part on a script devised by a Tibetan monk named Phangs-pa as a way of systematizing the many tongues of the Mongol Empire. Alas, although Sejong's efforts resulted in a library of over 160 works printed with moveable type based on Hangul, it did not create an information revolution of the sort inspired by his contemporary colleague in far-off Mainz. Why? Because the Korean elite insisted on sticking with Chinese, in great part because they wanted to preserve their status. Mr. Man's brief outline of events in Korea hint of a great tale to be told by a novelist-or Mr. Man himself-with a gift for creating in the mind's eye what the actual eye of the time would have seen. To say nothing of what the nose smelled and the tongue tasted. The sensuality of history is its least-examined feature.
Korea's triumph of elitism wasn't replicated in the West. The Catholic clergy stuck to Latin, in large part to keep the masses from finding out what they knew and said among themselves. But unlike Korea, the elitism of the Church was underlain by moral and economic corruption so blatant we can scarce imagine it today. Some say that once the words of the Bible became known to anyone who cared to read them, Luther or someone like him was inevitable. Maybe. What was inevitable, though, was the Enlightenment. Nearly everyone today nourishes from the fruits of that tree. Within fifty years of Gutenberg's first Bible circa 1450, the number of books of all kinds in Europe grew from thousands to millions. Science, literature, and the the writing of history as we know it emerged. Church hegemony collapsed. Kings created nation-states. Proof, not faith, became the criterion of truth. As Mr. Man points put, the book, and no less the man behind it, was the vehicle out of the Dark Ages.
It becomes very clear on a second reading of his book, cover to cover and this time looking at the air and light in the room as well as the furnishings, that Mr. Man is no less a scholar to the teeth than the myriads of Ph.D pensters who have made the Middle Ages and Renaissance such a huge section in the Dewey Decimal catalog. The difference is that Mr. Man can write rings around most historians. Pages 60 and 61 are such a recital of the fakery of the relics and pilgrimage trade that you might take it as satire until you reflect on how many Westerners today pilgrimage to Indian ashrams to lap up equally fanciful interpretations of Hindu legends, without much bothering to put into practice in their daily lives the moral and behavioral principles those gods commend.
Maypoles and meanders around the trees of history. If you don't have a love affair going with today's forest of words before Mr. Man, you certainly will after him.