literary post of the week

Gutenberg Bible

On August 24, 1456, Johannes Gutenberg finished printing his 42-line Bible, perhaps better known as the Gutenberg Bible, in Mainz, Germany. It is also often named as the first book Gutenberg printed by moveable type on a printing press, but that is not true. It was his first big book, what we pedants call a double folio; it is a lectern Bible, meant to stay on the lectern at the front of the church for the readings. It is slightly over 17 inches tall; paper copies were often bound in two volumes, and the vellum, due to their weight, usually in four. This was not your study Bible.

Initially, Gutenberg tried to print the rubrics, the headings of each book of the Bible, by passing the paper twice through the press, once with black ink for the body of the text, and the second time with red ink for the rubrics, but getting the text to line up correctly is devilishly difficult, even in 21st century handpress. He soon gave up the process, and left gaps for the rubrics to be handlettered after printing was done.

In 1456, books left the printer in much different shape than they do today. Books were not bound at the printer, but folded into the correct order and wrapped in a vellum sheet, Binding, illustration, and in the case of the 42-line Bible, rubrication was the responsibility of the buyer; the amount depended on the amount of money the buyer wanted to spend. Some copies were never decorated.

The Bible seems to have sold out immediately, with initial sales to owners as far away as England. Although the printed Bible was much cheaper than manuscript Bibles, people of ordinary income would have been unable to afford them. Most were probably sold to monasteries, universities and particularly wealthy individuals.

There are 11 copies of the 42-line Bible in the United States, of which only 5 are complete. The Library of Congress has a complete vellum copy on display in the lobby of the Jefferson Building. In a building that has untold beauties in every corner, wherever one looks, it is stunning and awe-inspiring. The complete paper copy held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin was purchased in 1978 for 2.4 million dollars.

My library does not hold one of the 11 copies, but we do have a page from a work printed by Gutenberg in 1460. I love to bring it out for students to see, because they are always amazed at how fresh and beautiful the paper is, how the letters are pressed so firmly into the page, how clearly one can read it (or could, if one could read Latin in black-letter Gothic type). The students who are part and parcel of the born-digital generation are knocked off their pins by the beauty and durability of this old technology.

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book of days, book review, literary post of the week, research, Writing

Gone with the WInd

On August 16, 1949, Margaret Mitchell died from injuries sustained when she was struck by a taxicab in Atlanta, Georgia. Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize for her only novel published during her lifetime, Gone with the Wind (GWTW). Released in the summer of 1936, GWTW had sold a million copies by December. A 2008 Harris Poll rated GWTW the second favorite book of Americans, selling more than 30 million copies at that time. It has been translated into over 40 languages and published in 50 countries. It was smuggled into Nazi-occupied France, where someone caught with it could be shot (1). Nebiy Mekonnen was arrested during Megistu’s Red Terror in Ethiopia. While in prison, he wrote his translation on the only paper available to him, the inner lining paper from cigarette packs. The completed pages were smuggled out in cigarette packs. When he was finally released, He compiled over 3000 lining papers to print his translation. (2)

Despite the popularity of the novel (some would say due to it), academicians dismiss it as conventional and unevenly written. Educators avoid the political morass of its glamorization of slavery and a classist society that deservedly met its end 150 years ago.

While I was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., my family moved to Atlanta when I was 8 weeks old, so I am nearly a native. I read GWTW ensconced in an overstuffed chair in a corner of the living room the summer I was 9 years old. I left that chair for nothing beyond basic necessities for several days. There were many things about it that held me entranced. Scarlett O’Hara had a brash Irish father and a genteel Southern mother, like me; unlike me, she lived in a sprawling house with an upstairs, and had her own room. When Margaret Mitchell wrote about Atlanta, she named streets that I knew, on the way to my father’s office, or down where the Capitol building was. I knew the town she wrote of; I’d walked those streets.

I had heard family stories from the Civil War; how my great-great grandmother had hidden the family silver from Sherman’s men by throwing it in the well; stories of genteel poverty after the War filled my youth. In my innocence, not fully understanding the complexities of Scarlett’s character, I made Katie Scarlett my role model. It didn’t matter that I was a girl; I could still go out and conquer the world, just like she did. I began to voice my opinions, to my genteel mother’s distress, who warned me that boys didn’t like smart girls. I wonder if the popularity of GWTW in war-torn, occupied countries wasn’t due in part to the way Scarlett found a way to survive in such harsh conditions.

It is true that GWTW glamorizes a way of life based on a fundamentally evil concept. I have to agree with Pat Conroy that Mitchell’s portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan “appears to be a benign combination of the Elks Club and a men’s equestrian society” (3). Perhaps I am naïve, but I certainly understood that the KKK was not a good group, no matter its description in the novel, and I cannot imagine any other reaction despite Mitchell’s depiction. Even at nine years old, I knew that Atlanta was a different place, and a better place than antebellum Georgia had been.

I would like to say in closing, that if all you know of GWTW is the movie, it is a pale shadow on the novel. At 1,037 pages, it is not a small investment in time or energy. It is not a perfect novel, but the characters have a vibrancy and life that leaps off the page. Despite all the academic training I have undergone in the meantime, I still recapture the glow of possible futures when I open the novel again.

(1) Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Critic at Large: A Study in Scarlett.” The New Yorker. August 31, 1992, pages 87—103 (see page 101).
(2) Huang, Carol. “Tomorrow Is Another Day: An Ethiopian student survives a brutal imprisonment by translating Gone with the Wind into his native Amharic.” The American Scholar. 2006, Volume 75 (Autumn, Issue 4), pages 79—88.
(3) Pat Conroy, Preface to Gone with the Wind, Pocket Books edition.