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How are ya?
I attempt a friendly and informal greeting because of all these years between us: 550, more or less, since your Bible was published as the first printed Western book. Ungrudgingly, I want to salute you, almost as if you were a sidekick from the neighborhood.
I also write warmly to you, and without undue reserve, because of my hand, which wants, despite all, to shake yours.
My hand. Which in this year, 2007, has been known to write with ink, or whatever fills our pens. Often I write by hand, and on paper, that rather perishable thing. Perishable as thought. Perishable as the past.
I don’t really prefer the bland immortality of the video display terminal, or the “document” hatched and handled there. (Always a document—why? Why not a whim, say?) I don’t prefer that faceless electronic authority, the authority supposedly transferable to me.
Today the screen and its symbols seem to me just a blinking grid. As each e-mail or WordPerfect author toddles about his or her business, this is what I suspect: we are merely filling in, with a desperate anonymous vim, preassigned nooks of the grid, invention begone.
All the same, our individual, recondite wills do still have some slight influence, don’t they? How unwise would I be to refuse the grid?
I ask the question partly because an old-fashioned printer’s way of working (yours) depends on taking stock of a tray of nooks and queues. All those seem to precede the fingertip of any craftsman or his craftsmanship, since yours. Staring at the tray, one could even say that what you invented also invented you.
True, first you were invented as a Gensfleisch, which in German means “gooseflesh.” Yet there were a few too many Johanns already in the Gensfleisch clan, and you—a Johann, too, no less—didn’t feel like being just another. So you called yourself Gutenberg, instead—“good hill.” (This was the name of a family home.) In any case, your kin weren’t really gooseflesh. They were, indeed, well heeled.
You weren’t. In the end, you wanted to make money far less than you wanted to make things (and new things, unheralded). Although you are the father of literacy, to the gooseflesh, you must have seemed a dupe of folly.
In fact, you were a goldsmith, sued by your intended in 1436 for slander and breach of promise. You never married. In 1455, you were sued by another Johann, this one a lawyer. Mr. Johann Fust, also your erstwhile business partner, sought repayment of his loan to you, plus interest, totaling upwards of 2,000 gulden—enough, at that time, to buy more than one farm. You couldn’t repay him, hadn’t funds. So lawyer Fust took possession of your workshop stuff. Why does his name sound like a foul archival curse?
Your work on the 42-line Bible, among others, fell into his hands. There in Mainz, Mr. Fust must have made some money, after all.
What were you still doing later in those parts, hanging out not far from Fust, adrift? Bitter? Not? Perhaps finagling with another press. For upon your death, penniless, in 1468, a certain Dr. Conrad Homery duly received printing equipment from your estate. What had you been doing with it?
You’d wanted to make books, books as handsome as a scribe’s, but yours would cost much less. To find out how to do it cost a lot. Producing a Bible worthy of the church, you spent and spent. What if it had only been an almanac, or a modest alphabet book?
As the scholars tell us, but “twenty-seven authentic documents about Gutenberg” now exist.
All the more reason for my handshake. For someone of such finite interests, you have unfairly vanished.
Opus posthumous: in 1484, an engraving came to hand of “an elderly man in a furred cap such as might have been worn by a Polish nobleman, with a forked beard.” The nobleman also wore “a rather vacant expression.” You, supposedly.
We invent what we need, then pay for it.
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