Afternoon Coffee Break: Divine Art, Infernal Machine by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein

14786This blog post comes from Penn Press's Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, continuing the Afternoon Coffee Break series, in which Tracy shares her reflections and observations about a different Penn Press book that she has read. Enjoy!

Just about every weekday afternoon you’ll find me at a coffee shop drinking a latte and reading a Penn Press book. There are many good reasons for wanting to work at a scholarly press, but my favorite one is that I get to read the books. I am not a scholar, and this is not a review.

This week's book:

Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein

Why I picked it:

According to the description on the back cover, this book promised to be a very readable history of 500 years of printing and printers, and although that appealed to me on an intellectual and professional level, it was my personal experience with the equipment of printing that drew me to the book’s title: Divine Art, Infernal Machine. I was once employed by a printing shop in which I worked with high-speed copier/printers made by Xerox known as Docutechs. Even though I would be hard-pressed to consider what I did as a “Divine Art,” I took professional pride in my technical ability to put ink on paper and I produced voluminous jobs—from technical training manuals to pharmaceutical sales kits to tags for agricultural feed bags. I had two models under my care, the 6135 and the 6180, and I felt for these machines the way I think cowboys must have bonded with their horses—I was completely dependent upon them for my success, yet they had their own personalities and could prove capricious in their ability and willingness to do what I needed them to do. “Infernal Machines” indeed.

What I discovered:

This was a sweeping history and there were times when I was struck by something that seemed so obvious after I read it, that I was surprised I didn’t think of things this way before. For instance, I always knew that Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of movable lead type was a watershed moment for the history of printing and the dissemination of knowledge. But it never dawned on me until reading this book that, at the time of its development, it was considered on par with two other lead-based inventions that were integral to imperial ambition and success: the compass and bullets.

There’s also the condition of information overload: we consider it a relatively new phenomenon that resulted from our digital technologies. But when printing started to preserve and rescue texts that previously may have been lost to obscurity and to disseminate new knowledge in ever greater numbers, fears and anxieties rose about the ability of readers to discern what’s true or right. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

But I was most intrigued by the recurring quarrels between those who held that the practices of the past were always better than those of the present. Every age before the present was the “golden” age. When printing just started to gain traction, the age of the scribes was idolized by nostalgic commentators as being error-free and wonderful. But the truth is that scribes were accused of being sloppy and slow and their manuscripts were full of errors! When publishers became booksellers, and print became commercialized and a way to make money, then the previous era of early printers, who may have sacrificed their fortunes, or even their lives, to bring texts into being, were ennobled as perfect printers who never made any errors and whose motives were always pure. Of course, this wasn’t the case in reality. As Eisenstein succinctly put it, “The best of the past was held up against the worst of the present.” Such comparisons continue: it’s very common to hear or read about the golden age of newspapers and how it compares to our current degraded age of the internet and social media. But the Weekly World News didn’t just appear out of nowhere—“yellow journalism,” according to Wikipedia, has been around since the 1890s!

Favorite bit:

Eisenstein includes in her book the following quote about eighteenth-century printing and publishing practices from Richard Altick’s The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900 (published in 1998 by Ohio State University Press):

“Like Martial, most Roman writers knew that the profits of their writing ended up in the pockets of the booksellers, who often combined retail trade with a copying business—and were, in effect, publishers and distributors too . . . Horace . . . made the obvious comparison: booksellers were the rich pimps . . . and authors . . . were the hardworking but humiliated prostitutes.”

In this age of Amazon, television, and online outlets—and ever-diminishing margins in the book trade—I don’t think anyone involved in book publishing has full pockets. But I really hope that’s not how our authors feel about Penn Press!