Sunday, August 24, 2008

An anniversary for the books and The Book

The first printing press

Today we mark a momentous anniversary. On August 24, 1456 the very first book to be printed on a movable metal printing press was completed. According to one account some historians call the movable printing press “the most important invention in history.” Before this invention every book had to be copied by hand which was obviously a very tedious and slow process.

After the invention of the printing press, books could be mass produced and they were more affordable which changed the world. According to an
article at the Library of Congress web page this invention resulted in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world. The accumulated knowledge of the human race, previously available to only a privileged few, become the common property of every person who knew how to read and the increasing availability of books wrought by the printing press led to more people learning to read. And so that article at the Library of Congress web page says that the invention that was used to complete the printing of a book 552 years ago today was “an immense forward step in the emancipation of the human mind.” Back in the year 2000 an international panel of scientists chose the inventor of the printing press as “most outstanding personality of the millennium.”

In the not too distant future bound books are likely to become less important to humankind. Already there are e-books available so that people can read books on their computers and there are portable e-book readers onto which one can download many books to one small handheld device. We are some years away from it, but we are moving into an age in which printed books will be less important.

But for more than 5 ½ centuries mass produced books have been perhaps the main learning tool of humanity and therefore they have been indispensible to the progress of humankind as it has unfolded. And it all started 552 years ago today.

However this is not only an anniversary for the books, it is also an anniversary for The Book. The man who invented that movable printing press was Johannes Gutenberg and the first book that Gutenberg finished printing on his new printing press on August 24, 1456 after one year of work was the famous Gutenberg Bible.

It is ironic that the book that made books cheap and available to the common person is now so rare and expensive that only the richest and most privileged could possibly own one. Gutenberg made only 180 copies of his famous Bible and only 48 of those are known to still exist today. In 1999 a single page from a Gutenberg Bible sold for $26,000. In 1995 a page from a Gutenberg Bible containing the Ten Commandments sold for $75,000. Estimates on the value of a complete Gutenberg Bible vary greatly between $25 and $100 million.

So if you happen to run across a Gutenberg Bible at a yard sale for $5 you might want to pick it up.

It is also ironic that we live in a culture in which the Bible is more accessible than ever and yet Bible literacy seems to be on the decline. Bound copies of the scriptures are readily available, dozens of complete English versions of the Bible are offered online, and audio Bibles abound. Never have we had more ways and means to read the scriptures but surveys indicate that, as a society, we read the Bible less.

On this day on which we mark the world changing event of the first book completed on the printing press—a Bible—perhaps it is a good day to rededicate our lives to reading the Bible.