Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

I know I'm probably supposed to love this book. It's a seminal work, comprehensive in scope, and about something I find really interesting. But the truth is, I hated this book. Reading it was terrible. And unfortunately, now I own a copy of it. Damn it.

Elizabeth Eisenstein makes the case that the impact of printing on "Western Christendom" (really? Are we still calling it Christendom in the 70's?) was colossal, a sea-change, and that it has gone unremarked upon by scholars. Practically every paragraph begins with some statement like "So few studies have really dedicated attention to X issue" or "Y issue deserves stronger emphasis" or "On Z issue, the existing scholarship is too restrictive." WE GET IT, Eisenstein; you're about to tell us something mind-blowing that we've never heard before.

But the frustrating thing is that she doesn't. No, it's not just that she doesn't tell me something new because, honestly, from where I sit in 2011, book history is a big deal and a lot of people pay attention to it . . . that I can get over because she was writing in 1979 and this book was filling a gap. It's that she never really states her point. She says, "we should consider the multiple ramifications of A and B," but doesn't say what they were! What were they, Eisenstein? What were they?

She does eventually get around to making her points, but her writing is so circular and timid that it is difficult to read all the way till she says her piece. Her basic points are that: printing was an enormous, overwhelming change and contemporary people noticed it; printing changed the way people thought, by making scribal innovations like indices, title pages, alphabetical order, etc., normative; printing "fixed" texts so that later editions are thought to be more authoritative and settled; printing "corrected" texts by making errors more visible to more eyes; printing contributed to an explosion of knowledge by making cross-referencing and broad, rather than deep, reading more widely available to scholars; printing contributed to literal revolutions (French, American) by getting people on the same page (pun intended) at the same time.

Adrian Johns, who argues with Eisenstein, tomorrow.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

I think Eisenstein's work often gets lumped in and criticized with others (like Thomas Kuhn, etc) who try to articulate a monolithic "revolution" in early modern science, printing, religion, culture, and/or art.

If helpful, it's worth taking a look at the recent criticism of Eisenstien in Baron, Lindquist, and Shevlin, eds.__Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies After Elizabeth L. Eisenstein__ Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.