Printing in the blood
THE COOL TOUCH of lead type and the crashing of an iron platen are what brought me first to printing and the story of the Gutenberg Bible. I was lucky to learn “the darkest art” as an apprentice to master printers in California. First, my grandfather, Lester Lloyd, the foreman of the last major ‘hot type’ foundry on the west coast, Mackenzie and Harris. Starting at the age of 16, I began printing books, broadsides, poetry and ephemera, first in his garage at the Red Squirrel Press, then on my own press, a 1910 cast iron Chandler & Price (at left) that is currently being used by a printer in San Francisco. Then, in my mid-twenties, while working toward a masters in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, I was selected as the first apprentice in what would become a long-running training program at the Yolla Bolly Press, run by the master printer-design team of James and Carolyn Robertson.
It was in San Francisco in 2001, shortly after Johann Gutenberg was celebrated as the ‘Man of the Millennium,’ that I learned about a recent discovery that had thrown scholars of early printing into an uproar. A leading expert had discovered that the metal types Gutenberg used to make the world’s first printed books were not as advanced as had been thought. As a printer, journalist and writer, I was hooked. The tantalizing headline in The New York Times—”Has History Been Too Generous to Gutenberg?“—set me off on a years-long search for the real story of the making of the world’s most famous book.
So much serendipity accompanied this search that I am tempted, like medieval folk, to describe it as divinely fated. I was lucky to speak German and French, the languages of research into incunabula, the field of early printed books. Fate and a German husband took me to Berlin, where I lived for five years, making frequent forays to the inventor’s hometown of Mainz. Yet the key discovery was found in my native America, at New York City’s venerable Strand used bookstore: a forgotten monograph that told the story of one Peter Schoeffer, a little-known scribe and early printer whom scholars increasingly think was the artistic genius behind the first printed books. I had found my leading man, the member of the team whose story had never been told.
For five years I met and interviewed scholars of early printing and pored over a mountain of “Gutenbergiana” spanning five hundred years. The chase was exhilarating. Gradually I understood that recent years had brought a revolution in Gutenberg studies. The solitary genius theory had given way to a fuller picture of the garage tech startup that gave birth to the modern world—and this picture was labeled “Gutenberg-Fust-Schoeffer.” The mosaic tiles were all there, buried in scholarly journals. The story of the invention of printing was both stirring and tragic, for this extraordinary collaboration of medieval minds had ended in a bitter legal battle that destroyed their partnership.
The high point of my research came in July 2009, when Paul Needham, one of the world’s leading printing historians, almost casually put a volume of Princeton’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible in my hands. The craftsmanship was stunning. The ink was as glossy as if it had been printed the day before. I felt the spirit of the men who made it moving through each massive page. As a printer, I ran my fingers over the impression that the letters made in the vellum page. As a writer, I hoped that in telling its incredible story I might reaffirm the value of the physical book in our remote and electronic age.
I am a printer, journalist, and writer. I was born in the Silicon Valley when it was still orchards and grew up in California, Montana and British Columbia. After studying philosophy at Vassar College, I worked as an advertising copywriter before pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at U.C. Berkeley. For the past thirty years I have reported for newspapers in California and from Europe as a foreign correspondent, including the Washington Post, The Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle and Salon.com. I currently live in London with my husband and two children and review books and arts for The Economist. Some of my articles can be found here.
In the late 1990s, I turned to fiction. I hold a Masters of Fine Arts degree from St Mary’s College of California, and was a semifinalist in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. My short stories have appeared in the Southwest Review, Other Voices, and a limited edition from Foolscap Press. Gutenberg’s Apprentice is my first novel.
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