- In The Nature of the Book Johns argues against the belief in a “print culture” where print has inherent qualities of credibility and fixity. Rather, he argues in favor of a print culture that came about through years of hard work and trial and error. He says that the idea of the book being a stable, credible entity was a lengthy process in which it is necessary to understand the social and cultural contexts of its development. “Fixity exists only inasmuch as it is recognized and acted upon by people” (Johns 19). Only after viewing the book in this way can we come to understand the complex relationship between print and knowledge.
- Johns argues that print culture did not automatically come about with the invention of the printing press. He makes it clear that there are no inherent qualities of print and that “early modern printing was not joined by any obvious or necessary bond to enhanced fidelity, reliability, and truth” (Johns 5). All of these attributes that we now associate with print came about through human intervention. Print does not exist in a vacuum and to believe in a deterministic print culture is to completely ignore the context in which humans worked over centuries to build the print culture we have today. It is important to understand by whom, for whom, and how.
We often think of print as being a stable and more credible source of information than a spoken rumor or a handwritten piece of paper, but Johns argues that it was not always this way. Credibility was earned and there were many threats that threatened to undermine this important aspect. Piracy, meaning the unauthorized and often poorly copied reproduction of a work, was commonplace and just as prominent in the minds of readers as was credibility. Johns notes, “trust as a key element in the making of knowledge” (Johns 31). Print culture was just as susceptible to the problems that script culture faced.
Johns argues against Eisenstein’s belief that print enabled preservation. Instead he writes, “it is not printing per se that possesses preservative power, but printing put to use in particular ways” (Johns 5). Printing by itself did not just enable the preservation of documents, ideas, etc. One could easily print a single copy of something only to lose it forever, which makes it no better than if it were handwritten. It is the way in which printing was used that is important. Who printed it, how it was distributed, to whom it was distributed, and how it was read are all important aspects.
- A central piece of The Nature of the Book is Johns’ counter-argument of Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe.” The Johns piece made a lot more sense after reading Eisenstein. As Professor Thomas pointed out, it’s best to read the Eisenstein before the Johns, which, unfortunately, I did not.
Johns relies heavily on the stories of Tycho Brahe and Galileo to illustrate his point, but there were times when I didn’t understand the jump from their time to today, which is probably due to us only reading the introduction. I understand that printing was a mess when it first came about and I also understand the argument he makes about print culture, but I didn’t quite see how he arrived at his conclusion, which, again, would probably make sense if we read the whole book.
- How do we think of print culture today? Does it seem universally stable and credible, or rather, what is our trust level in print?