Alex Steer

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From script to print to ebook and back

347 words | ~2 min

I said here (and again here) that I'd write something about that other great flashpoint in the history of the book, the sixteenth century. In fact, for brevity and interestingness it's hard to top this short piece of film which includes an interview with Elizabeth Eisenstein, the historian who's done most to establish and quantify the 'printing revolution' of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (It's from Eisenstein's book The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe that we get one of the most telling estimates of the sheer oomph of early print - that eight million books were produced between the printing press's invention in c1439 and the beginning of the sixteenth century.) So here goes.

If you're really interested in how media revolutions work, read Eisenstein's book. But also read Harold Love's Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England. It describes how, despite the obvious onslaught of print, manuscript production didn't just die off. Instead it became a legacy system serving a small and devoted aristocratic audience who valued its uniqueness, intimacy and elite status. You can feel some of that dynamic if you read, say, Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella poems (not printed until after his death), which rely for some of their effects on the assumption that these are handwritten poems designed to be circulated to an intimate readership; or in the prefatory poems to patrons and friends in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, which treat the epic poem as if it's being sent around by hand rather than printed for a general public. It's the same dynamic you might feel now if tempted to buy someone a hardback book as a gift, or send a handwritten note rather than an email.

# Alex Steer (09/03/2011)