On Reading 'The Lost Gutenberg' and Giving Up Paper Books

How has your relationship with books changed?

May 2, 2019

The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book's Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey by Margaret Leslie Davis 

Published in March of 2019.

How many paper books would you estimate that you own?

Can you make a guesstimate for the number of books at your house?  In your office?

I can answer this question precisely.  There are 24 paper books in my office.  I have five physical books in my home.  (My wife and kids have more paper copies, I’m just counting what I brought into the family).

The paper books at my house are university press books that I’ve promised to read, and that do not have an audiobook companion.

How is it possible for an academic to have so few physical books?  The answer to this question has to do with how our books circulate.

A few years ago, I would have reported that my home is filled with hundreds of books.  Books from graduate school. Books from early academic jobs.  Books for research.  Books for teaching.  Books for pleasure.

Each time we moved we’d put all of our books in boxes.  Lots of boxes.  Over six moves to three different universities we moved our books.  And then, at the time of our last move, we decided that our book moving days are over.  We sold some books and gave many more away to the used bookstore in the next town over (since closed).  We went from a household of hundreds of books (mostly mine) to one of tens of books (mostly not mine).

By the time I gave away all my books, I’d already converted to a digital book reader.  All my books are now e-book and audiobooks, usually both.

I fully suspect that like all digital content, my books will eventually disappear as formats change and electronic platforms whither.  When I die, my digital book copies will die with me.

Sharing this description of my history with books is background to why I chose, and am now recommending, The Lost Gutenberg.

The Lost Gutenberg is the story of one book.  The Gutenberg Bible Number 45.

As all of you know, the Gutenberg Bible’s were the first books created with moveable metal type.  Printed by Johannes Gutenberg in mid-fifteenth century Mainz (present-day Germany), the Bibles are among the world’s most cherished and valuable objects. Today, only 49 Gutenberg Bibles are known to exist.  There are 11 in the US (five are at universities), 8 in the United Kingdom (3 at universities), and one in Japan.

The Gutenberg Bible at Keio University in Tokyo, Number 45, is the subject of The Lost Gutenberg.  By restricting the story to a single volume, Davis is able to share the larger story of the history of books and the obsession of bibliophiles.  Throughout two World Wars, numerous depressions, scandals, and several questionable decisions the Gutenberg Number 45 survived.

The owner of the Number 45 that The Lost Gutenberg focuses mostly on is  Estelle Betzold Doheny, the heir to a 20th century California oil fortune.  Doheny’s quest to purchase Number 45 - a pathbreaking move for a female book collector in the mid 20th century - is juxtaposed against the Catholic Church’s shortsighted selling of Number 45 after it was given by Doheny at her death.

Eventually, Number 45 ended up at the Keio University (with a stop a Japanese publishing house), where a high resolution digitized copy can be viewed today.  

As a hardcore digital/audiobook fanatic, I found reading the biography of the earliest moveable type printed book to be hugely gratifying.  I continue to love the idea of the physical book.  My conversion to digital books remains ambivalent, as it pains me not to be able to pass my books along to friends and colleagues.

As our book ecosystem grows to include digital copies, I suspect that physical books will become ever more valuable.  The less tangible our book reading experience, the greater the emphasis we will put on the design and construction of the few physical books that we choose to keep.

How has your relationship with books changed?

What books about the history and future of books would you recommend?

Do you have a prized book in your library?

What are you reading?


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