Book of the Week: Gutenberg’s Apprentice – Alix Christie

I did a little sneak peek mention of this back in July when the starred reviews started coming in. A glance at the cover locates this for readers as a historical novel. And it definitely works on that level: 15th century metropolitan Germany and its power constituencies—the Church, the merchant class, the guilds–come vividly to life.

What’s really thrilling to me about this book, though, is the way it feels like I could be reading the story in Fast Company. It’s about a visionary tech genius and a sharp-eyed entrepreneur who scrabble and scheme to bring to market a previously inconceivable technology that is so disruptive it changes the world.

No, I’m not talking about Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. But that’s how revolutionary the invention of moveable type was. We all know the name Gutenberg and have an idea that moveable type was a big idea. But the story of how that actually happened is filled with intrigue and is necessarily also the story of the man who, like Jobs, was able to force something so revolutionary into the marketplace—Johann Fust. And it’s the story of his ward, Peter Schoeffer, a scribe positioned to have power in the old-world order he helps to end.

When Fust requires Peter to collaborate with a seeming madman named Gutenberg, the stage is set. As the editor says, this is a story of “[n]ewly wealthy merchants in their Kaufhaus angling for power, a brand new council of working men from the guilds flexing their collective muscle, a corrupt Archbishop dueling with the Pope, scribes copying both religious and secular texts while priests milk a deeply religious populace for indulgences, women and children at home and at work–in short, a small medieval town permeated by religion, commerce, and art in a turbulent Holy Roman Empire.”

Fans of contemporary classics such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring will likely be drawn to this. It arrives as an Indie Next pick with and review in the New York Times Book Review to start.

“[Readers] experience the frustration and exhilaration of designing, typesetting, and rolling the first printed Bible off the press….For unhappy Peter, printed texts seem less sacred, and certainly less artistic, than hand-copied manuscripts. Demanding and sometimes devious, Gutenberg proves a difficult boss; worst of all, the equipment still has bugs to work out. Only when Peter comes up with his own innovation does he appreciate print’s artistry and power. Despite obstacles posed by the Church, guilds, family, and friends, Fust, Gutenberg, and Schoeffer’s tenuous collaboration culminates in the Gutenberg Bible. Contemporary readers suspicious of digital texts will sympathize with Peter’s mixed feelings towards print. History buffs will savor the moment the inventor, the scribe, and the merchant make a decision that leads them out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Journalist Christie’s fiction debut descriptions of technical processes and medieval society are enthralling…[a] meticulous account of quattrocento innovation, technology, politics, art, and commerce.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Christie masterfully depicts the time and energy required to print the first Bibles, a years-long process of trial and error, tinkering with ink and type, lines and paper, guilder after guilder spent without return, all against a catastrophic backdrop of plague, the fall of Constantinople, the violent superstitions of the peasantry, and a vested intelligentsia fearing the press would generate ‘crude words crudely wrought…smut and prophecy, the ranting of anarchists and antichrists’…A bravura debut.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This gorgeously written debut, set in the cathedral city of fifteenth-century Mainz, dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible in a story that devotees of book history and authentic historical fiction will relish…An inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation based on actual events and people, this wonderful novel fully inhabits its age.”
— Booklist (starred review)

Gutenberg’s Apprentice (9780062336019) by Alix Christie. $27.99 hardcover. 9/23/14 on sale.

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