In the beginning was the (printed) word

If you're reading these words as spots of ink on a thin sheet of pulped, dried, and flattened wood, you can thank Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. And if you're reading them as pixels of light transmitted via the World Wide Web, Gutenberg is still the man indirectly responsible. Without the spread of knowledge made possible by the printing press, the Information Age would probably still be centuries away.

We take printing for granted. In 2002, the "paperless" office still appears an impossible dream, and most homes are mired in reams of newspapers, flyers, magazines, books – and bills. But the printing press was by no means inevitable. In "Gutenberg," John Man looks at the exploits of a tenacious entrepreneur and artisan whose invention forever altered the way human beings communicate – and split the leading religious institution of his day.

At the heart of this history is the tension between the sacred and the profane. The Bible, his first major publishing project in 1455, was an endeavor with holy overtones. And Gutenberg's attention to artistic detail was zealous. He understood the importance of his Latin Bibles being error-free and beautiful. That dozens still exist is a testimony to the quality of his work.

But secular concerns dominated the development of the press. These included the worldly power of the Roman Catholic church, numerous technical and mechanical hurdles, and Gutenberg's need to turn a profit.

The author skillfully introduces the reader to 15th-century Germany, with its guilds, patricians, and a church whose political and cultural power permeated every aspect of life. In telling Gutenberg's story, Man shows how printing, the capstone achievement of the Northern Renaissance, served as the accelerant of the Protestant Reformation.

But while printing fueled the progress of political and scientific thought, it thrived commercially on something familiar to readers of every era from Gutenberg's up to the present: good old-fashioned pulp. Astrology and fortune-telling sold in droves as credulous (or easily entertained) readers seized the opportunity to get books for a bargain price.

Period details like this make "Gutenberg" a pleasure to read. Man is never able to paint a convincing portrait of Johann Gutenberg himself: The biographical material is simply too thin to make this a riveting, character-driven history. But he succeeds on two other counts: He gives readers a sense of how the printed word spread throughout Europe after Gutenberg's innovations, and he gets down into the technical and financial nitty-gritty with a lively, clear prose that readers will find a joy.

In particular, the author provides rich detail of the effort Gutenberg made to make sure his Bibles were better than the painstakingly crafted, hand-copied editions of the book commonly available.

Man takes nine pages to describe the nuances of typesetting the first printed Bible – and they're compelling, which is no mean feat. Gutenberg used 290 different characters to compose his Bible, to mimic every character in the hand-copied editions, ranging from the prosaic letter "A" to the exotic figure that looks like a 9 that once stood for the letters "-us." The first batch of 30 to 35 copies used 5,000 calfskins to create the vellum for the luxury edition; some 200,000 pages of handmade paper were required for an additional 150 copies.

The ultimate irony of Gutenberg's accomplishment is that the printing press, which could have been used to cement the unity of the church, instead led to the rapid spread of Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation.

The forces of the Reformation seized upon the press as a means of moving their message, and it soon covered Europe. Luther was responsible for a full third of all books printed in Germany between 1518 and 1525. Though printing was in its infancy, Germany was producing 1 million copies a year – 300,000 by Luther alone.

Man is at his best when he's describing the way Gutenberg's technology rippled through the towns of Europe, and the way that petty economics almost brought Gutenberg's project to a halt before it reached fruition.

Fortunately for all of us, Gutenberg pulled it off. If he hadn't, you wouldn't be reading these words – and "Gutenberg," a fascinating study of the history of the printed word – wouldn't be on bookshelves across the world.

• James Norton is an editor on the Monitor's international desk.

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