Reflections on Chapter 3

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. 

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Chapter 3

  1. Noah, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts how the book and printing press are treated (or ‘read’) in the study of Communications. The tagline that some of your colleagues cite is “the medium is the message” when I ask about their ICS coursework. With regards to print culture, how might an ICS faculty member or student frame their research and what issues might they be concerned with? To what degree would an ICS approach to studying the book/press resemble or differ from the approach of this course?


    1. Thanks for the questions Ryan, I’ll try to answer them to the best of my ability. The printing press holds a very important place in the hearts of communications students like myself. When we are introduced to the press in communications studies, it is viewed as a revolutionary piece of technology that greatly expands the scope in which we as humans may create and distribute information. Much of the cultural implications tend to be glossed over, that is until later in our research. That quote, “The Medium is the Message”, was famously uttered by Canada’s very own Marshall McLuhan, a literary scholar and founder of the doctrine of communications studies. Each medium exerts a certain level of bias over its content, which in turn alters our perception of the content. For example, if speech is the medium, then tone is the bias that it imparts upon the message. If I were to approach the topic of the press or the book in one of my communications papers, I would identify the biases of the medium then work my way from there. Communications studies would like approach the medium based on its use by society or explore potential uses for the medium. Does the book lend itself well as a vehicle for art, or is it strictly a way to collect and archive information? I ask myself questions like this when researching particular new media or technologies. In many cases, if not all, there is no binary answer to these questions. Media are salient forces within society that offer so much in the ways of both practical and artistic use. Hopefully I’ll be able to answer your questions more thoroughly as we work our way through the material.

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