My A-Z of Reading: P is for Printing

December 7, 2016

Mediaeval handwritten manuscript books are often stunningly beautiful because of their gorgeous illustrations. And handwritten books were incredibly expensive: I remember reading somewhere that by the end of his life, Geoffrey Chaucer had acquired a library of some sixty books; I had that many by the time I went off to secondary school…

So printing was a wonderful invention, in a lot of ways. Books became more plentiful, and somewhat cheaper; for a while the wealthy paid to have hand illustration done to their printed copies, but it wasn’t quite the same. Woodcut illustrations became the norm, and while some are beautiful, many are quite crude and rather pedestrian. With print, the focus was very much on the dissemination of the word, the idea: historians often say that the Reformation could never have happened without the advent of printing in the West, and if you think that a major contribution was the mass production of bibles in vernacular translations, then this is surely true.

Printing meant the spreading of ideas, then, and it must also have contributed to the spread of eduction through different social classes, for if there is the technology to produce books more cheaply, printers and booksellers will have an eye to business, and they needed readers. And you couldn’t have the general access to universal education that spread in the nineteenth century without access to books.

However, printing and the dissemination of ideas is also subversive, a danger to the establishment: though you can give everyone access to the bible and preach about obedience to the authorities, you cannot easily stop other philosophies and ideologies spreading through the same medium. They thought of censorship, which was reasonably effective for a while in dealing with troublesome literature.

And so we get to our own times, where the internet is as powerful, if not a more powerful, disruptor of things. Previously, you needed a certain amount of money to get your book into print and distributed; you needed to be a wealthy man to start a newspaper and influence people that way. But with the internet, you could do it all for almost nothing: spread your ideas, lies, false news, ‘post-truth’ writings – call them what you like. And trying to censor the internet is like… well…

But those who would control ideas quite rapidly realised that there was a much better way to block dangerous or subversive ideas, no matter what the medium – print, television, internet – you simply swamp real content with crap. Think about it: serious newspapers exist and are read by the few, while The Sun, the Daily Mail, Bild Zeitung are read by the millions. Serious TV programmes exist, but who can find them among hundreds of channels of soaps, dramas, game shows, shopping channels and the rest? And on the internet it’s easier still: so much garbage out there, particularly when social media and search engines take control: who actually knows what is out there and where to find it, what is going on, how we are being manipulated?

Truly, both printing and the web are double-edged swords, allowing both the dissemination of new ideas and control of large numbers of people through obfuscation and fog. And no-one has found a way to cut through those, yet.

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