Blake Morrison

"The Justification of Johann Gutenberg"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 9, 2003)

"Eternity to man was never a promise of mine…
But eternity for a book: that I could arrange."

The Justification of Gutenberg by Blake Morrison

With his clever title implying simultaneously Gutenberg's justification of his life as it nears its end, his judgment by posterity, and a typesetter's spacing of words so that both left and right margins are even, Morrison sets the tone for this fascinating story about Johann Gutenberg and his development of the first printing press. The invention most responsible for the spread of knowledge from the mid-fifteenth century till the development of the computer, the printing press was a far more clandestine and potentially subversive invention than one might imagine, and its creation was fraught with peril, financially, legally, and intellectually.

Read excerptBeginning as the first-person recollections of Gutenberg as an old man in 1464, as he thinks about his end-of-life exile in Eltville, not far from Mainz, the novel establishes both Gutenberg's desire to be remembered and his loneliness. As he says to his scribe Anton, "When a man has been first, the world should know it," but former supporters have "usurped" his presses and supplies in Mainz, and they have publicly deprecated him. He remains alone, in exile, his words being his only "children" and comfort.

Born the son of a wealthy German aristocrat from Mainz and a shopkeeper's daughter, the man who became known as Johann Gutenberg found himself trapped socially from his earliest days, unable to become a Companion of the Mint, like his school friends, because of his mother's lowly birth, and unable to be accepted by the working classes because of his father's. "The mint-boys liked looking down on me," he says, while "the guild-boys hated looking up."

Rejecting a life in the priesthood, and unable to gain a footing in a trade, Gutenberg goes to university, becomes a scribe in a Benedictine scriptorium, and eventually has a mystical experience-or one to which he wryly ascribes mystical overtones when talking to an audience, at least. One day in the forest, when he was feeding the birds, he says, "it was as if the dove that perched [on my hand] spreading its wings had become an open book. And the dove departing from me was like a book taking flight. And the grain the dove held in its beak was like a kernel of knowledge seeding itself through the world." After gaining experience as a coin-maker and engraver, he listens to the voice of the Rhine, which tells him to travel, and leaves Mainz for other northern European cities, not returning for many years.

Life for an inventor of something as revolutionary as the printing press is not easy. Always in debt, regardless of where he is working, never able to repay his creditors, willing to sacrifice the woman he loves for his ambition, and at the mercy of both the guilds, who have a vested interest in having his invention fail, and the church which fears the potential power of a secular press, Gutenberg's entire life is a fight. Creditors constantly take him to court, and he often has to start over. But as he points out to his sworn-to-secrecy employees, a scribe working 200 days a year would need six years to complete a 1200-page Bible, and three scribes would need two years. With twenty employees, Gutenberg, too, would need two years to make one acceptable copy of the Bible, using 40,000 pieces of type and a ton of paper, but once that one successful copy is made, one hundred more copies can be made with the same type. "A book," he says, "can be reborn. When one version dies through rotting or burning, another - just the same - rises in its place…Eternity for a book: that I can arrange."

In clear, deceptively simple, and sometimes lyrical prose, Morrison recreates the physical, social, and intellectual environment in which Gutenberg and his acquaintances operate. Gutenberg's first person recollections are sometimes ingenuous, usually honest, occasionally apologetic, and always driven by his ambition "to help words fly as far as doves," by promoting the successful development of his press.

The actual Johann Gutenberg is something of a mystery, but Morrison adds muscle and tooth to the skeletal framework of what is known, creating a character which, if not realistic, is certainly plausible. Though parts of the book, such as a section about the making of type may not be intriguing to all readers, Morrison sandwiches the technical sections between more personal dramas, like Gutenberg's love interests and the machinations of his enemies to gain his machines. Homely details about subjects such as why vellum is preferred to paper, and where and how each is acquired, add color to what might otherwise be a black and white exposition about an arcane subject, while the archaic and formal language helps to create a sense of time and place. The historically accurate sections about the siege of Mainz by a radical movement within the church, the expulsion of eight hundred citizens, including Gutenberg when he is an old man, and the seizure of their properties, add drama to this unusual novel.

At the end of his life, in exile in Eltville, Gutenberg is still working at his craft, hoping to create a dictionary of vernacular German. "Give me longer," he says, "and I will print in ruder tongues, for as the birds in the field sing in several voices, so men do - there is no one language for truth." Every person who loves and buys books celebrates in some way, however distantly, the achievements of Gutenberg. In this intriguing novel, author Morrison celebrates them without reservation and brings them to life.

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Read a chapter excerpt from The Justification of Johann Gutenberg

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Movies from Books:

  • And When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007)


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About the Author:

Blake MorrisonBlake Morrison was born in Skipton, Yorkshire, in 1950. He was educated at the University of Nottingham and University College, London. He worked for the Times Literary Supplement between 1978 and 1981 and was then literary editor for both The Observer and the Independent on Sunday. He is Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a former Chairman of the Poetry Book Society and council member of the Poetry Society, a member of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council of England and Vice-Chairman of English PEN.

Blake is a literary journalist, poet, essayist, playwright, and novelist. His non-fiction books And When Did You Last See Your Father? -- an honest and moving account of his father's life and death -- won the J. R. Ackerley Prize and the Esquire/Volvo/Waterstone's Non-Fiction Book Award.

Morrison lives in London, England. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014