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This Thursday marks the 562nd anniversary of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book to be printed with movable type. Movable type is a printing system whereby individual letterforms are cast in metal, arranged in a matrix, inked up, and pressed onto a piece paper, leaving an inky impression. Today, this method is chiefly used in printing fancy wedding invitations and menus at farm-to-table restaurants, but when it dropped in the 1450s, it truly wobbled the world.
Gutenberg’s method quickly supplanted the old and laborious book-making method of writing everything out by hand, and in so doing, it increased the sheer quantity of books on Earth a thousandfold. By dramatically decreasing the cost of texts and subsequently increasing the number of texts available, it gave a large number of people access to books in an individual setting for the first time, without an intermediary from the church and/or state reading to them. People suddenly had the space to establish their own opinions on texts, to interpret them differently, to compare different texts, and to just read privately, without anyone knowing what they were reading. While it’s false to say that this all manner of differing ideas suddenly flowed like water, it’s true that it became much easier to behold that there were in fact many different and seemingly contradictory ideas about how the world works that were possible and/or valid.
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For these reasons, people in power at the time were worried that Gutenberg’s press would destroy the world, and they were absolutely right, it did. It destroyed their world. Or anyway it significantly weakened their authority, which to anyone in authority is a destruction of the world.
Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568. Jost Amman / Wikipedia
In addition to increasing the number of things we were apt to think about and the ways we could freely think about them, Gutenberg’s press led to a change in the way our minds work in general (see: Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962). While we can’t know on what day the phonetic alphabet was invented, or speech, other events that changed our wiring significantly, we have a general consensus on the birthday of the first major publication with movable type: It was February 23, 1455.
Gutenberg’s press led to a change in the way our minds work in general.
One copy of the Gutenberg Bible is on display at the New York Public Library, and others are sprinkled around the globe. They look extremely good — Gutenberg and associates did a really, really good job.
The Gutenberg Bible is not to be confused with The Guttenberg Bible, which is the biography of Police Academy star Steve Guttenberg. Mr. Guttenberg most recently starred in the sequel to Lavalantula, called 2 Lava 2 Lantula!. It is about a giant tarantula made of lava. Mr. Gutenberg, of Bible fame, is long deceased.
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Jacob Khepler is the main writer and publisher of Mothers News. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
The War of the Worlds is one of a group of novels by H. G. Wells that are classified as scientific romances. The others are The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The First Men in the Moon (1901).
At the end of the nineteenth century, there was much scientific and popular speculation about the possibility of life on Mars. Astronomer Percival Lowell, for example, proposed in 1896 that the canals on Mars were the work of intelligent beings. Wells was acquainted with such theories and published nonfiction articles that discussed them. He also used the idea of intelligent life elsewhere to write a story that would shatter the Victorian belief in the inevitability of progress and the benevolence of the process of evolution.
At the beginning of the novel, humanity goes about its business completely self-assured of its mastery of nature and utterly ignorant of anything that might threaten it. The superior place occupied by humans in the chain of being is usurped in a matter of days. To make the point, Wells draws frequent analogies between how the Martians must regard humans and how humans regard lower life-forms. The Martians must have studied humanity as human scientists might study minute organisms under a microscope, and the aliens take as much notice of human attempts to communicate with them as humans do to the lowing of a cow. Ants, bees, monkeys, and rabbits also are invoked to emphasize the shifting order of nature. The point is clear: Evolution, the process of natural selection, does not inevitably favor humankind.
In this cosmic pessimism, Wells was influenced heavily by the theories of T. H. Huxley, whose lectures Wells attended in 1884. There is no doubt that although the novel ends with the overthrow of the Martians, it is predominantly pessimistic. Not only is all of humanity’s technological knowledge and military power useless against the Martians, but so is its edifice of spiritual knowledge: The curate is the most pathetic character in the book. Weak and cowardly, he clings to scriptures that offer neither explanation nor solace for humanity’s plight. Even though humanity survives this particular catastrophe, in time, as Earth slowly decays, it will face the same crisis that the Martians had faced and that prompted their invasion of Earth. The only solace to be had from the war is the knowledge that too much confidence in the future leads to decadence. Humankind perpetually must be ready for the worst.