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"Gutenberg the Geek"
March 19, 2012 - 9:00pm

Gutenberg the Geek by Jeff Jarvis

It's hard to not feel that we are passing through a post-Gutenberg (post-Gutenbergian?) phase. Hasn't the e-book, the Kindle and the Nook, killed its paper cousin? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In 2010 publishing revenue increased 3.1%, to a healthy $27.9 billion. E-book sales rose almost 40% from the year before, bringing in $1.62 billion in revenue.  

For now, Gutenberg is safe. But for how long? Will the publishing industry follow the music and news industries into dematerialization?  (And will education follow all three?)  Or will the story of physical books and digital books be a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" story - with e-book sales complementing and adding to the book publishing take?   

To evaluate the future of the book it is necessary to understand its past.  Johannes Gutenberg is a good place to start. Gutenberg came up with movable type printing at about 1439. The Mosaic web browser was released in 1993. Amazon's Kindle came out 14 years later. We know the story of the web, the browser, and the e-book pretty well. Gutenberg's story is a bit hazier.

Enter Jeff Jarvis, a journalist and blogger over at buzzmachine, and author of the books Public Parts  and What Would Google Do? (Both of which are on my "to read list" - neither of which I have actually read. Have you?).

In a post-Gutenberg move, Jarvis published his brief book on Gutenberg in an all digital format, as $0.99 Kindle Single. And rather than go the traditional historical or biographical route (primary sources, lots of footnotes, etc. etc.), Jarvis chose to rely on a few well-known secondary sources while spending his energy (and digital pages) interpreting Gutenberg's work and life through modern eyes. The results are surprisingly effective. I enjoyed thinking about Gutenberg through the lens of a dot-com capitalist, an entrepreneur who brought in venture funding and formed his own start-up.   

This method of describing the origins of the printing press through language and metaphors used to describe the technology industry and Silicon Valley will probably rankle professional historians and the purists amongst us. Or maybe our historian colleagues will also see this book as good fun, and decide that Gutenberg the Geek will act as a gateway drug to more serious Gutenberg scholarship. You should decide for yourself, as this is a great way to spend a dollar (free if you have Amazon Prime) and a bit of time.

What are you reading?


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