(HarperCollins, $27.99, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

You don’t encounter all that many authors who can actually print their own books, and not by using a computer printer, either. One such is debut novelist Alix Christie, who also is a journalist and letterpress printer who learned that skill as an apprentice to two master California printers and owns and operates a letterpress. Christie lives in London and reviews books and arts for the Economist.

What is this book about?

This is a story of enormous changes in the world of publishing – but it’s not about the birth of the Internet or the Kindle. It is a historical novel set in medieval Germany, where the invention of the printing press made waves still reverberating today. Peter Schoeffer, the ward of wealthy German merchant Johann Fust, is working as a scribe in Paris but gets hauled back to his hometown of Mainz in Germany to meet none other than Johann Gutenberg, who has just invented the printing press, a device that can and will change the way knowledge is disseminated. It is no longer the exclusive province of priests and scholars, handed down via illuminated handwritten manuscripts. Gutenberg’s press opens the world of words to the masses, and  that changes everything. Peter joins him in the controversial endeavor of printing copies of the Bible, despite fierce opposition, and also must deal with his two father figures: Fust, who is helping to fund Gutenberg, and the inventor himself, a difficult but brilliant man.

Why you’ll like it:

This is one of those novels that draws fascinating and unexpected parallels between the world we know today and long-ago civilization as the Middle Ages waned and the Renaissance bloomed. It shows us that cataclysmic change in how we live and think is nothing new: it happened then with the invention of the printing press and in our lifetime with the advent of computers and the Internet. There may be nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes, but the amazing details Christie recounts in her debut novel will be new, and thrilling, to her readers.

What others are saying:

Kirkus’s starred review says: “Christie debuts with a literary exploration of Gutenberg and his printing press, which sparked a technological revolution—as well as the other men involved who were left in history’s shadows. Johann Fust, prosperous merchant of Mainz, Germany, gathered guilders and gold for Gutenberg. Peter Schoeffer, Fust’s ward who was training in Paris as a scribe, was called home to become Gutenberg’s apprentice—and watch over the mad genius. An orphaned peasant boy, cousin of Fust’s first wife, Schoeffer resented being drawn away from intellectual circles but came to see his chance to “raise again the…lamp of learning.” Schoeffer’s the primary protagonist, his interior journey from frustration to reconciliation to obsession with Gutenberg’s press deftly chronicled against the panorama of the 15th century—the jealous craft guilds, the iron hand and depraved greed of the church hierarchy, the free towns like Mainz controlled by the machinations of oligarchs called Elders. Schoeffer anchors the story, but Gutenberg flashes—megalomaniacal and duplicitous, with hair “wild and bristling to his shoulders…beard cascad[ing]…glinting here and there like twists of wire,” and “glowing, canine eyes.” Christie masterfully depicts the time and energy required to print the first Bibles, a yearslong process of trial and error, tinkering with ink and type, lines and paper, guilder after guilder spent without return, all against a catastrophic backdrop of plague, the fall of Constantinople, the violent superstitions of the peasantry, and a vested intelligentsia fearing the press would generate “crude words crudely wrought…smut and prophecy, the ranting of anarchists and antichrists.” Bibles, 180 in all, are printed in the strictest secrecy lest the press be seized “as a threat to the scriptoria whose proceeds kept the landed cloisters fat.” While rendered chronologically, with a second narrative thread about Schoeffer’s courtship of his first wife, the narrative is given texture through intermittent chapters in which Schoeffer, years later—worried that Gutenberg’s triumph was more corrupt than holy—relates his story to Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim .A bravura debut. ‘

“Gutenberg’s Apprentice is an imaginative recounting of history that, despite a 15th-century setting, reflects many of today’s chief matters of concern. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the ever-changing art of publishing, ”  says BookPage.

In a starred review, Booklist says: “Gorgeously written…dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible in a story that devotees of book history and authentic historical fiction will relish…An inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation based on actual events and people, this wonderful novel fully inhabits its age.”

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review: “This detailed historical novel takes readers into Gutenberg’s 15th-century Mainz workshop to experience the frustration and exhilaration of designing, typesetting, and rolling the first printed Bible off the press. Focusing on contributions made by Gutenberg’s associates, the story follows the apprenticeship of future publishing pioneer Peter Schoeffer from the day Peter’s adopted father, merchant-investor Johann Fust, tells him to give up life as a Parisian scribe in order to learn a new trade using Gutenberg’s secret technology and techniques. For unhappy Peter, printed texts seem less sacred, and certainly less artistic, than hand-copied manuscripts. Demanding and sometimes devious, Gutenberg proves a difficult boss; worst of all, the equipment still has bugs to work out. Only when Peter comes up with his own innovation does he appreciate print’s artistry and power. Despite obstacles posed by the Church, guilds, family, and friends, Fust, Gutenberg, and Schoeffer’s tenuous collaboration culminates in the Gutenberg Bible. Contemporary readers suspicious of digital texts will sympathize with Peter’s mixed feelings towards print. History buffs will savor the moment the inventor, the scribe, and the merchant make a decision that leads them out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Journalist Christie’s fiction debut descriptions of technical processes and medieval society are enthralling; the romance and personal melodrama are less compelling. At her best, she demonstrates a printer’s precision and a dogged researcher’s diligence in her painstakingly meticulous account of quattrocento innovation, technology, politics, art, and commerce.”

When is it available?

It’s on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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