When I initially covered the rise of the printing press in ICS 1001, I had no idea just how controversial the technology was. In chapter 3 of Robinson’s The Book in Society, printing is explored through a historical survey of China and Europe, but also through its social and economic impact on societies. On one hand, printing signaled the early stages of the process of democratization of information. Despite the initial high costs of printing, books found their way into the hands of the clergy and lords of the land. Through these early adopters, information was orally disseminated to the illiterate masses. As the technology improved, costs were greatly reduced and European societies gradually became more literate. Texts of great religious, scientific or cultural significance could finally be reproduced in a cost-efficient and timely manner.
Despite the progress made on the side of information dissemination, some felt as though the printed book robbed society of the artistic value of the book. Under the previous scribal culture, the book had been constructed through an intimate process of both dedication and craftsmanship. Critics of the commercial press such as John Ruskin and William Morris viewed the book as an art rather than a vehicle for the consumption of information.
As a Communications scholar, I find truth in both sides of the argument. It would be difficult to argue against the importance of the printing industry in the early stages of the information age. Cheap books functioned as catalysts for commercial and societal revolutions much like the widespread adoption of the internet in the late 20th century. On the other hand, the artistic value of a well-crafted book in undeniable. I have a cheaply transcribed Project-Gutenberg-esque copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy which I printed out in my final year of highschool. I also own a very nice hardcover copy of the same work. My hardcover possesses woodblock art and typeface which harkens back to the manuscripts of 14th century scribal culture. It is gorgeous to say the least. Reading the cheap print out did not provoke the same emotions or connections to the work that reading the hardcover did. Taking both sides into consideration, I think they fail to understand print for what it truly is: a medium. No medium is bound strictly to art or content.