Volume 14, No. 2
April 2002

Mercurial Matters

SHOT 2002 in Toronto

Graduate Student Bonus

Survey of Local TV History

News of Mercurians and their Projects

Citizens (Band) of France Unite!

Printing a Revolution?

The End of Books

Reading Red Ochre: Parting Thoughts on Mixed Receptions

Dishing It Up: Really Big Antennas

Journal Announcements

Communications Under the Seas

Contact Us

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Printing A Revolution?

hand-powered printing press

When giants contest large questions, the ground shakes beneath them. Thus might the rest of us perceive the heated debate between Elizabeth L. Eisenstein and Adrian Johns in the most recent American Historical Review (February 2002). Eisenstein’s two-volume The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge University Press, 1979) shows that Europeans used printing presses in ways that created a cosmopolitan print culture and transformed their worlds and how they saw them. Johns’s The Nature of the Book (University of Chicago Press, 1998) argues, in part, that the notion of a print revolution did not arrive until around 1800 and that analyzing what came before that time requires detailed reconstruction of local practices of both printing and reading (his own work studies England). Assessing these two books, even just these essays, is impossible here. So instead, here are a few hints about the essays’ contents to tempt you into looking into the AHR arena to witness this great debate.

Standardization is a theme that historians of technology take seriously, and it weaves its way through these essays. How and why did print’s capabilities for standardized production appeal to those concerned with reproducing or reading bodies of words? To what extent did it fail to relieve concerns about reliably reproducing texts? Other questions Eisenstein and Johns address include how and why did print technologies and their uses spread? How did early producers and consumers of printed words experience the processes? What frustrations and satisfactions did they feel with it?

Eisenstein explains her disagreement with Johns in part as following from her own “start[ing] with medieval texts and the incapacity of hand copying to achieve certain goals long valued by Latin reading elites.” In contrast, she says, Johns “starts with the modern book and the incapacity of the handpress to achieve the degree of standardization and uniformity that is now taken for granted.” The authors articulate their contrasting historiographical methods, as well; most intriguing.

The centrality of print to most historical processes for the past seven centuries makes it difficult to isolate their mutually reciprocating causes and effects and to weigh relative impacts and influences. This AHR forum shakes the scholarly earth with its intensity and the excitement of debating just how and why this cluster of communication technologies came to matter so much.

Antenna readers will recognize Elizabeth Eisenstein as a distinguished member of the newsletter’s Associate Board.