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‘Gutenberg’s Apprentice’ tells how the printed Bible came to be

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The world is about to change.

Europe in 1450 is a godly place, and books are sacred and scarce. Each is hand-lettered by a scribe, directed by the hand of the Almighty.

In Alix Christie’s telling of how Johann Gutenberg’s revolutionary printed Bible took form, overcoming the idea of a mechanically produced holy book is a serious concern. Peter Schoeffer, a young scribe who is the apprentice of the book’s title, views the idea as the work of the devil.

Schoeffer, an actual historical figure who was one of the three men responsible for bringing the book from vision to reality, has, in Christie’s imagining, some serious soul searching to do. Printing (gasp!) a Bible (gasp!) is clearly sacrilegious, and he wants no part of it. But as the adopted son of Johann Fust, the wealthy Mainz merchant who’s underwriting the project, he is obligated.

Eventually, he comes to believe that the hand of God is manifest in this project. He convinces himself (or does God convince him?) that there is artistry in the designing of typefaces, in the maddening process of producing metal and developing ink able to withstand the abuse of Gutenberg’s primitive press. (Convincing his God-fearing fiancee proves more problematic.)

For Gutenberg, it’s not about divine inspiration; it’s about money and recognition. As Christie tells it, the man is a secretive, scheming, mercurial, manipulative, two-faced hustler — hardly a person whose invention would rock the foundations of society. But Gutenberg simply sees himself as a pragmatist. He insists on utter secrecy for the years it takes to bring his Bible to reality — from everyone but himself. He demands scrupulous honesty — from everyone but himself. He demands utter loyalty, but undertakes printing contracts for papal indulgences without telling anyone on his crew, save one.

To Peter, this jeopardizes the divinely inspired mission. To Gutenberg, it’s a feint that keeps prying, greedy ecclesiastical eyes diverted from his true objective.

Meanwhile, Fust sees himself being bled dry by Gutenberg, and tension with the free-spending inventor builds to the point of threatening the project. Peter, loyal to both but at odds with each, is squeezed in the middle.

Christie has a huge task in immersing us in the tumultuous 15th century. The powers in Mainz were struggling to shed the corrupt, coffer-draining yoke of the church; the guilds were chafing against the city’s elders; Christianity was rocked to its core as Constantinople fell to Muslim attackers and talk of another Crusade circulated. There’s much history for the reader to absorb, and, at times, it’s too much. The head swims.

Perhaps, because the task is so overwhelming, Christie’s writing never leaps off the page. I never got swept along by her prose as I longed to be. Still, she tries hard, and her writing is unobtrusive.

I also wished for greater depth of character. Not that Peter isn’t introspective, or that we’re unaware of the complexity of Gutenberg. But perhaps Christie has come at the characters a bit too head-on, telling rather than showing.

Christopher Wienandt is a staff writer for the Dallas Morning News.

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