Richard Abel on his New Book About the Man Who Changed the World: Johannes Gutenberg
The Daily Bell is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Richard Abel.
Introduction: Richard Abel attracted our attention because of a book entitled The Gutenberg Revolution (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick & London, 2011). As it turns out, Mr. Abel is a man of extensive erudition, who has devoted his writing to books and history. Growing up in Montana, he conceived of a deep love of learning that took him to Reed College and then to the University of Berkeley as a history major. He later created and sold several rare book and publishing companies before settling into his current occupation, which predictably enough involves book writing. Some of the following was provided via written responses.
Daily Bell: Give us some background. Where did you grow up?
Richard Abel: I was born and raised in Montana. My father was a homesteader, lawyer and cattle rancher. In that setting I developed a strong sense of self-reliance coupled with an intense interest in philosophy and history to seek to discover the roots and evolution of human culture. Most of my early learning was carried on in the ranch bunkhouse. This study led to enrolling in a history concentration. I received my B.A. From Reed College and continued my studies for two years at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1940s.
Daily Bell: Did you continue with history?
Richard Abel: In 1950 I entered into the world of the scholarly book as a bookseller, managing the Reed College Bookstore. In the course of these early years I also founded a publishing firm specializing in fine-print limited editions.
These ventures continued to grow and in 1960 I left Reed College and founded Richard Abel and Co., a scholarly bookseller to academic and research libraries. At its zenith this firm maintained 16 offices located in the principal regions of North America, Europe, South America and Australia. These offices were used by staff to meet with scholarly librarians in their region to resolve the inevitable problems that arise in any ongoing relationship.
Some of these offices were also used to acquire all the scholarly books published in their region as published and from their backlists. This firm was able to supply academic libraries in all parts of the developed world with any or all the books published in any part of the developed world. The firm developed a battery of computer-maintained bibliographical tools designed to get books and cataloging in upon publication and at minimal expense to the libraries upon publication.
Daily Bell: That's quite a business. What happened to it?
Richard Abel: I left book selling in 1972 and turned to book publishing, founding several publishing imprints in subsequent years. I sold all of these various imprints in the following years and in 1990 started writing for book-trade journals, principally Publishing Research Quarterly and later LOGOS: The Journal of the World Book Community.
Over these years I was involved in book-editing/writing of four titles as well. Three of these were edited with Gordon Graham, the founder and editor of LOGOS. These first appeared as articles in the journal and with the express intent of then collecting them into book form. Two were published by the polymath publisher, Irving Louis Horowitz through his publishing firm Transaction Publishers. These are The Book in the United States Today and Immigrant Publishers.
A third book, edited with Gordon Graham and written by me, was published by LOGOS: Books That Shaped the Century.
Another book co-edited with Lyman Newlin was published for the Charleston Conference by John Wiley & Sons: Scholarly Publishing: Books, Journals, Publishers & Libraries in the Twentieth Century.
Daily Bell: How did your book The Gutenberg Revolution (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick & London, 2011) come about?
Richard Abel: In the course of book-trade writing I was surprised by the casual attitude of the histories of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods paid to Gutenberg's invention. I began to research the matter. In the early stages of this investigation I was of the view that these various historians failed to see the great paucity of hypothesis-making derived from a cultural universe of a few scattered manuscripts of a limited number of authors generously sprinkled with copyists' errors located in widely dispersed locations during the medieval period.
But as this work proceeded, augmented by reading in philosophy – particularly recent epistemology – I began to understand the extraordinary cultural differences between the impoverishment of the ideational manuscript culture and the richness of the ideational printed book culture. This outcome, I concluded, arose from the paucity of acute minds generating, debating and exchanging alternative explanatory hypotheses. This led to seeing the medieval culture as epistemologically constrained and confined. The few minds sufficiently curious and/or venturesome enough had to rely upon on a handful of manuscripts scattered across Europe some of which employed a forgotten script, usually full of copying errors, most absent any punctuation and some with interpolated glosses and notes. With such numerous shortcomings it is something of an achievement that as much productive work was accomplished as did. All the intellectual springboards of this limited body of disjunct manuscripts had long been fully utilized.
Daily Bell: So it's safe to say the Gutenberg Press was a springboard for a wider Renaissance?
Richard Abel: The monopoly currency of cultural evolution is ideas. Ideas can only be generated when an alert mind senses a further or more powerful meaning implicit in an already established idea or body of ideas. Once such an infant idea is broadcast out into the public square of reflection and debate it must be attacked, recast, or whatever to find acceptance or be overwhelmed. Only along this tortuous path may a new idea be widely accepted into the prevailing body of knowledge.
In short, the intellectual springboards necessary for a large body of minds to develop new hypotheses regarding the mystery of this world and the life therein were simply in short supply for a millennium. All the avenues necessary to developing a larger body of cultural currency in the medieval world had been largely explored.
Daily Bell: Give us a breakdown of the evolution of the Renaissance.
Richard Abel: The first proof of this hypothesis is evident in the period between the fifth century and the twelfth century when few new cultural goods were produced. Then in the twelfth century when most of the Aristotelian corpus was introduced from Arabic Spain the medieval world started minting increased cultural currency. The multitudinous intellectual springboards were seized upon by the Schoolmen, most notably Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas. In the hands of these men and their confreres a notable renascence in medieval thought resulted offering all manner of new and useful additions to the knowledge body of the West, new insights into the understanding of the world and of humankind.
The disastrous fourteenth century – plagues, rapid global cooling, famine and the resumption of invasions from Asia largely put quits this twelfth century renascence. But under these continuing and severe existential conditions some significant cultural avenues remained open. The fifteenth century saw in the early years openings to Constantinople and the flowering of the Florentine Academy with the receipt of Plato's writings. But these cultural departures were likely to find little meaning outside of a few local settings for they were still dependent upon the rickety technology of the hand-copied manuscript.
Daily Bell: Enter Gutenberg?
Richard Abel: Meanwhile in central Europe, along the Rhine, the unplugging of the vials of knowledge, the solution to the epistemological constraint of the West was conceived and being fabricated by Johannes Gutenberg – first in Strasburg, then in Frankfurt. That great man labeled his inventions "artificial writing."
Daily Bell: Were lots of books printed right away? What were the press runs like?
Richard Abel: In the early years of print the usual press run was 500 copies of a title all sharing a common and usually well-founded text. In the course of the following 50 years the size of the typical title press run ratcheted up to 1,000 copies. Further, the number of new titles published yearly rose precipitously. With this number and quantity of new titles the printers were faced by a new and formidable marketing problem – it was quite a different matter than writing out a single manuscript on commission for a patron. The printers now had to alter their sense of the market from a small, local market to a continent-wide market. This Europe-wide distribution was accomplished by the inauguration of large book fairs in a handful of towns, all centers of widespread trade. Printers set out for these fairs with wagonloads of the titles they had published in the previous years and returned home with their wagons loaded with the titles acquired in trade with other printers for sale in their printing houses, thus assuring their local customers of a wide selection of books.
Gutenberg had introduced the knowledge generation engine to facilitate the focusing of a large and widespread cadre of minds to the generation and debate of new hypotheses and the flow of the resulting sustainable ideas into the public square.
Daily Bell: And the impact?
Richard Abel: What was the epistemological and cultural outcome of this sudden widespread circulation of numerous common texts and the recruiting of thousands of minds to the forging and distribution of a rapidly growing torrent of new hypotheses and the ensuing debates?
Manifestly it simply led to the tumult of knowledge concepts and ethical precepts of all kinds, some of which cascaded into the cultural economy of the West – astronomy, mathematics, shipbuilding, navigation, construction, commerce, energy production, anthropology, botany, zoology and on and on. The succeeding sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are awash with the fruits of this new knowledge culture.
In my book, The Gutenberg Revolution, I have compared the failed cultural renascences of the eighth century (Carolingian), twelfth century (Schoolman) and the continuing vitality of newly inaugurated fifteenth/sixteenth centuries tradition (the print revolution). I have sought to briefly depict all the cultural fruits fostered by the latter and the long-term failures of the first two. All the benefits accruing to the West as the result of Gutenberg's genius have influenced to a greater or lesser degree the cultures of the balance of the world.
Daily Bell: Wow ... strong statement. He was a pretty important man yet in a sense he is treated as a historical afterthought. We can't help but think his artificial writing wasn't welcomed by the elites of the day.
Richard Abel: Yes, this is a fair issue to raise ... the matter of elites in the history of the West. It seems to me that elites have always gathered about centers of power – governing bodies, religious institutions, the venues of commerce, etc. – and almost as commonly cells of opposition to these centers of power. In recent times the extraordinary growth and intrusiveness of the enormous bureaucratic state have consumed much of each generation's talent while centers of opposition (not possessed of the monopoly of force as held by the state) is considerably beleaguered.
With respect to elites in relation to Gutenberg, he and the various supporters he succeeded in recruiting for support were like the great man himself, operating in a purely private venture the ultimate aim of which was to accumulate wealth.
Daily Bell: Can you please speak to the pamphlet wars waged at times of great public debate?
Richard Abel: The Archbishops war in Frankfurt about the time of Gutenberg's first successes, followed by such as that of the Lutheran/Catholic debate or that of the English Revolution, were all conducted by committed protagonists of one side or another. Printing continues to be co-opted in every serious cultural debate arising in the various scarcities of the world.
Daily Bell: Can you comment on the Internet within this context?
Richard Abel: Turning to your question with respect to the place of the rapid rise of information technology I would submit the following. It appears that at this point in the evolution of IT that it is all about information not knowledge. IT simply does not provide the space or the content organizational structures found in virtually every serious printed book.
This a priori assessment is now beginning to find some preliminary confirmation in connection with the e-book. Early research has indicated that something on the order of 20 to 25 percent of the textual content in such books is lost to readers of the e-book. It simply takes a good deal of continuous, well organized length, accompanied by all the apparatus introduced to assist comprehension (footnotes, references to topics already dealt with or to be dealt with, etc.) together with the discreet and readily identifiable physical dimensions of the codex ('I think I read this back about here' where "here" is defined simply by continuing estimates as to where in the physical makeup of the book certain aspects of the hypothesis being explicated have been placed) to convey a complex narrative or exposition of an hypothesis.
Daily Bell: OK, a fair if disturbing point. Where do you think we're headed at this juncture?
Richard Abel: As might be evident from a close reading of The Gutenberg Revolution, I am a strong supporter of the freedom of the citizen from all political power centers. I am deeply concerned by the staggering growth of the bureaucratic state and greatly worried that human beings with their limited understandings and total ignorance of the future outcomes of their power dictates have been elevated to such levels of power as obtain virtually around the globe seeking to manage increasing aspects of our lives.
I have over the years tracked the history of the occasional emergence of limited power structures – the Greek polis, the Roman Republic and the Italian city-states – and witnessed their decline into financial decay and the arrival of the "man on horseback." I find the observation of the eighteenth century English historian, Fraser-Tyler, most appropriate to the present:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always vote for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy always followed by a dictatorship.
The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years. Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.
Daily Bell: Where can your book on Gutenberg be found?
Richard Abel: Copies of my book may be obtained in bookstores in North America and Europe.
Daily Bell: Thanks for sitting down with us.
We thought this was a most interesting book. We have noted that mainstream history rarely talks about the impact of the Gutenberg Press but that does not lessen its impact nor the impact of what we call the Internet Reformation.
Richard Abel came to a realization about the impact of the Gutenberg Press and wrote about it. We came to some similar conclusions. He doesn't share our perspective regarding the Internet necessarily but we've writen regularly about what we see as the parallels.
We've found an audience for this view. In fact, our perspective on this issue has been cited on various 'Net search engines no less than 100,000 times. And we believe it continues to have a good deal of relevance to what's happening today. Here's how we describe it:
There is a new Reformation taking place throughout the world, led by electronic communication technology. It is not being commented on by the nightly news nor written about in the mainstream media. But if you understand the trends and look closely, you can see it playing out every day in every part of human culture. It is already convulsing the world. Out of these labor pains a new and freer society is being born.
A new enlightenment is taking place – a fundamental reforming of societies' knowledge base. It is far more important and fundamental than a "technology revolution." It is rewriting the basic relationship that human beings have with their knowledge base and with its impact on their lives. The centralizing architecture erected by the Anglo-American elites is even now being undermined. The darkness is lifting as it lifted long ago during the Renaissance. An Internet Reformation is coming. It will have numerous unpredictable ramifications. In fact, its dawn is already here.
We don't think there's much that can derail what's happening at this point. In fact, censorship and other activities merely draw attention to the 'Net and the information it contains. The insights that the 'Net has offered to those willing to look shall continue to reveberate no matter what actions the powers-that-be undertake.
Posted by Danny B on 04/22/12 10:56 AM
Here's an article that is relevant to today's topic.
Click to view link
Posted by Lawrence on 04/22/12 10:34 AM
There wasn't much reading among the general public until relatively recently. A man can't think about spirituality or politics when his stomach is empty. For most of history, people were consumingly occupied with putting something in their stomach.
Only those with the luxury of leisure had time to read. As well, the Elite of any given time had a vested interest in controlling what information, if any, those under their control received. Most peasants were governed by hunger and fear of their masters.
Most people had no need of reading because there was nothing available for them to read. When the Elite found it useful for everyone to be able to read, as a way of controlling opinion, then reading became one of the fundamentals.
But only to read approved ideas. Opposing ideas have generally been banned and suppressed. The internet is the best and foremost weapon against the Elites, with it's instantly accessible and transmittable wealth of information and ideas.
Reply from The Daily Bell
You make a good point regarding generalized reading. But once the Gutenberg Press started printing bibles, people read them. Or at least, surely, they were read aloud. And the text differed considerably from Roman Catholic dogma. This helped cause the Reformation, etc., or at least provided a pretext.
Posted by rossbcan on 04/22/12 10:17 AM
RA: "discover the roots and evolution of human culture."
Okay... , here it is (From Ignorance to Civilization):
Click to view link
... and, the current de-evolutionary forces (Environmental Control, 101) collectively herding us "over the cliff":
Click to view link
... enabled because predators "on the bench" have rationalized away the "rule of law", enabled by centuries of predator control of information and education, destroying ability of the majority to critically think (and, therefore, act intelligently):
Click to view link
THINKING?, wtf is that:
Click to view link
... you asked:) Be careful what you ask for, this, like every other action, has unavoidable consequences.