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Before Zuckerberg, There Was Gutenberg

Adam L. Brinklow | September 25, 2014 | Lifestyle Story Culture

New technology hits the scene and upsets everything. Millions jump on the bandwagon. Fortunes are made and lost. A lot of people get sued. It all could be the next season of Silicon Valley, but as former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Alix Christie's new novel explains, it happened 560 years ago with the invention of the printing press.

Gutenberg's Apprentice
, Christie's first novel, on sale this week, got rolling when she researched the printing revolution and learned about Peter Schoeffer, the son of printing pioneer Johnanes Gutenberg's chief financier. Schoeffer left his job copying books by hand in a monastery to study Gutenberg's new technique. The ability to mass print books sparked a cultural revolution in Europe, ending the Middle Ages and breaking the Catholic Church's virtual monopoly on written media, a development that Schoeffer found himself ambivalent about.

Critics have taken to Gutenberg's Apprentice, with Kirkus Reviews calling it a "bravura debut." Even though it's an early modern tale, Bay Area readers know the issues at stake all too well. Gutenberg was a brilliant innovator but an awful boss. Christie compares him to Steve Jobs, but he reminds us more of Larry Ellison. The whole affair ends in a massive lawsuit between business partners a la The Social Network. The new communications technology created huge booms—and busts. "The human character doesn't change much in 500 years," says Christie. "Printing made the whole scribe industry collapse. Just like we see today with any job that's about the creation of words, people are flexible and we'll adapt, but it's inevitable that livelihoods are lost. That's how startups work."

Christie, a Bay Area native now living in London and reviewing books for The Economist, saw how the agony and the ecstasy of the Gutenberg story mirrored Silicon Valley. She's heir to the old-time San Francisco bookmaking family behind Arion Press. "I'm skeptical of early adopters," she says. "I love Twitter as much as the next person, but I don't think every new thing is going to improve life. I'm a letterpress printer and I'm married to a tech reporter, so this argument happens every other day in our house."

Though vigorously researched, the book is fiction. Christie says there weren't enough records to write a non-fiction account because Gutenberg and Schoeffer were working in stealth mode. "There was no protection for intellectual property in those days, so they hid what they were doing and didn't dare write anything down. The five most interesting years in human history and we know next to nothing about them."

Christie appears at a reading tonight at Arion Press in the Presidio. Gutenberg's Apprentice is available at the Booksmith and other Bay Area booksellers (or on Amazon. But wouldn't it feel wrong to buy it that way?).

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