Looking Back: “The inky crossroads where publishing and scholarship intersected.”

From a book review by Ernest Hilbert in the Wall Street Journal of Inky Fingers by Anthony Grafton:

In an age of briskly marketed “beach books,” it is easy to think of time spent turning pages as a leisure activity, almost an indulgence, anything but work. Even the familiar dream of retiring to a cabin to write a book seems like nothing so much as a vacation. It was not always so, as Anthony Grafton makes clear in “Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe.”.  .  .

The rise of movable-type printing in Europe, in the wake of Gutenberg’s Bible in the middle of the 15th century, gave birth to an altogether new industry and, along with it, new jobs—some more distinguished than others; some, as ever, better paying. Once the presses started rolling in earnest, fortunes piled up in the great printing centers of Europe and specialized kinds of labor were in demand.

In the printing houses, a lector (sometimes a woman), read aloud from a handwritten manuscript to a corrector, who would check the first setting of type against the original (at times introducing changes). Lectors, entry-level workers, hoped to be promoted to correctors, who resembled “a modern desk editor or literary agent,” according to Mr. Grafton. Nonetheless, grimy compositors, the “rude mechanicals” who worked the type, were more handsomely paid. This is, the author affirms, “the quintessential fate of humanists,” whose classical educations provide them with discriminating tastes but qualify them for labor no better paid than that of the “inky-handed men of toil.”. . .

Mr. Grafton introduces the reader to intriguing historical figures such as Francis Daniel Pastorius of Germantown (now part of Philadelphia), a Lutheran born in the German duchy of Franconia, who emigrated to the New World and went on to portray himself as an “American Pliny.” He raised the art of note-taking and journal-keeping to an organizational science. . . .

“Inky Fingers” is a captivating and often amusing survey of those who occupied “the inky crossroads where publishing and scholarship intersected,” among them a printer who hung proofs outside his shop offering a reward to anyone who spotted an error; a scholar who took care to comb his hair each morning “before he went upstairs to his study to speak with the ancients”; and one resourceful researcher who “worked with a book wheel and a rotating barber’s chair, so that he could whirl from project to project.”. . .

These are the stories of those who “worked in crowded shops as well as in quiet studies” and—while earning wages, forging reputations and pursuing private battles—also determined our modern sense of what constitutes history, accuracy, authenticity and the organization of knowledge. As Cosimo de’ Medici counseled: “Anyone who hoped to succeed in that fiercely competitive trade” must have “inky fingers.”


Speak Your Mind