Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie
Published by HarperCollins on September 23rd 2014
Genres: Biographical, Fiction, Historical, Literary
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Youthful, ambitious Peter Schoeffer is on the verge of professional success as a scribe in Paris when his foster father, the wealthy merchant and bookseller Johann Fust, summons him home to corruption- riddled, feud-plagued Mainz to meet "a most amazing man."Johann Gutenberg, a driven and caustic inventor, has devised a revolutionary—and, to some, blasphemous—method of bookmaking: a machine he calls a printing press. Fust is financing Gutenberg's workshop, and he orders Peter to become Gutenberg's apprentice. Resentful at having to abandon a prestigious career as a scribe, Peter begins his education in the "darkest art."As his skill grows, so too does his admiration for Gutenberg and his dedication to their daring venture: printing copies of the Holy Bible. But when outside forces align against them, Peter finds himself torn between two father figures—the generous Fust and the brilliant, mercurial Gutenberg, who inspires Peter to achieve his own mastery.Caught between the genius and the merchant, the old ways and the new, Peter and the men he admires must work together to prevail against overwhelming obstacles in a battle that will change history . . . and irrevocably transform them all.
I’m having a hard time on where to start with this book, so I’m just going to have at it. I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, but historical fiction surrounding the single most important invention of the last millenia? Sure, let’s give it a shot.
Well here’s what I discovered about me: I like historical fiction more when history is merely a backdrop rather than historical fiction that revolves around actual events in history. My problem is that I get caught up in how much of this is true versus what is fictionalized … now I have to find another (non-fiction) book on the Gutenberg operation to learn more. I know, I shouldn’t bitch about being inspired to read more. Enough about my issues with historical fiction, let’s talk about the actual book.
I think that most people with their feet firmly in the (literary) historical fiction genre are going to love this book. It’s beautifully written about a time in history that is largely overlooked and/or romanticized. I don’t feel like Christie does either of these things here. The story might have been better served by a brief introduction of the period at the beginning, but by the end of the novel it’s very clear what is going on politically in fifteenth century Germany. The Protestant Reformation is coming. The Reformation is largely considered to have really taken shape in 1517 when Martin Luther famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg.
Anyway. The novel is a frame story with an older, wiser Peter Schoeffer telling his tale to an abbot in 1485-1486. Most of the novel is a flashback to 1450-1454, the time it took to begin and finish 180 copies of what is now known as ‘The Gutenberg Bible’.
Christie gives us great cause to root for the coming reformation as the free-city of Mainz is held at ransom by the church who refuses to pay taxes so the peasants are starving. She makes a strong case throughout the novel of the beauty of the printed word – where everyone can have access to books – as being a gift from God.
“It wasn’t just this book that … [they] had betrayed, but their whole status as free, thinking men – this precious gift in the working of the Bible they’d been granted.”
Despite the historical backdrop I felt like this novel was exceptionally timely. An early quote from Chapter Four, Peter is speaking with the abbot, lamenting over ‘how little’ has been achieved with the invention of the Gutenberg press:
“The world is now flooded with crude words crudely wrought, an overwhelming glut of pages pouring from the scores of presses, springing up like mushrooms after rain. Churning their smut and prophecy, the rantings of anarchists and anti-christs – the scholars of the classics are in an uproar over how printing has defiled the book.”
Sound familiar? Yep. I’m thinking of Amazon and the outpouring of self-pubbed authors that have flocked there. I’m not going to get in to the Amazon/Hachette feud here but I freely admit that I love that Amazon has given self-pubbed authors such a voice. There’s a lot of crap out there, but there are books that never would have seen the light of day without Amazon. The one that comes to mind the most is Wool by Hugh Howey.
The other issue that I had with this book was that at times it seemed to get overly technical. For hobbyists and artists who make and bind books in their spare time, this information is probably fascinating. I found it a bit technical and lost the thread of the story at times. Luckily this information seems to mostly abate in the second half of the novel which made for more enjoyable reading.
The two things I love the most about this novel kind of intersect. The first was the afterword – which felt more non-fiction than fiction to me, the second was the setting. Why? Because I’ve spent some considerable time in Mainz! I’ve seen one of the original 180 copies, only 48 which are known to have survived. I loved being able to recognize all the tiny obscure German cities that I visited while reading this book. Do you want pictures? Of course you do. I’ll spare you with only three.
All my Mainz pictures can be seen here, including bigger sizes of the ones above.
Look how thin I was!
This is going to be an enjoyable read for historical fiction buffs and those interested in the technicalities of medieval bookmaking. It’s inspired me to add something to my bookish bucket list, which is to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair founded sometime before 1503 by Peter Schoeffer!
So, Readers, are you a historical fiction buff? Does the intersection of the printed word, religious upheaval, and medieval politics intrigue you?
I’m excited to be participating in the tour for Alix Christie’s Gutenberg Apprentice, be sure to check out the entire tour schedule here, it runs through 17 October.