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Book printing

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Printing is a set of techniques allowing the reproduction in large quantities, on material support, of writings and illustrations, in order to allow mass distribution. Generally, flat supports are used and the most used material is paper or textile.

These techniques form what is commonly called the graphics chain. They range from the composition of texts to shaping (binding, folding, brochure …) through the processing of illustrations (photoengraving), proofreading and then printing. The expression “graphic arts” appeared after the Second World War to replace the too general term “printing”.


The invention of printing, anonymous, design by Stradanus (The invention of printing, anonymous, design by Stradanus, collection Plantin-Moretus Museum)

The history of printing is closely linked to the development of humanity and culture. Since man developed his means of expression (artistic representations, theater, etc.), he has sought to perpetuate his works and to disseminate them.

From scribes in ancient Egypt, who carved in stone and wrote on papyrus to medieval copyist monks, who spent their days reproducing works – mostly religious – by hand-copying them, man has regularly tried to automate these means of copying. The printing press thus enables the rapid and inexpensive dissemination of knowledge. It allowed its first inventors, the Chinese, to spread Buddhism, writing and most of Chinese culture (music, painting, calligraphy, architecture, textiles, etc.), in Korea, then in Japan.

Impacts of printing

The consequences of the invention of printing caught the attention of the historical school of the Annales, with the book L’apparition du livre (1957) by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin.

Anglo-Saxon historiography is interested in this subject later, with The Gutenberg Galaxy, by Marshall McLuhan, in 1962, then the work of the American historian, Elizabeth Eisenstein, with The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979 ). Robert Darnton’s 1984 essay, from The Great Cat Massacre, deals with the sometimes strained social relations between apprentice workers, journeymen, and owners of printing shops in the 1730s.

An estimate of the total number of books printed gives the figures of two hundred million for the sixteenth century, five hundred million in the seventeenth century and one billion in the eighteenth century. This ubiquity of print extends and reinforces the effects of writing on thought and expression, changing the relative place of orality in culture as a whole.

The printing press allowed the dissemination of knowledge to an unprecedented level, which produced the Renaissance, a period when a greater part of the population rediscovered the knowledge of Antiquity. It also involves taking a new look at the world, which will lead to the scientific revolution and the birth of modern science. Finally, the printing press brought about an ideal of generalized literacy which would result in the expansion of public schools.

The rapid proliferation of books ceased to make them a rare commodity reserved for an elite: henceforth, it was possible for a large fraction of the population to set up a private library. The individual practice of reading strengthens in each individual the awareness of their own interiority. By allowing anyone to obtain a copy of the Bible and read it for themselves, without official interpretation from the Church, the printing press encourages the practice of self-examination. It allows Luther’s ideas to spread from 1520, leading to the Protestant Reformation and the reorientation of Catholic practices. While throughout the Middle Ages, the Bible was read, especially in monasteries, according to a codified interpretation (four senses of Scripture), the greater dissemination of the holy book among the population from the Renaissance results, under the influence of the Reformation, a return to literality which will have considerable consequences thereafter.

The printing press is one of the factors that allowed the development of individualism in Western society from the Renaissance, by promoting this individual activity among all that is reading.

The printing press also gave birth to the novel, which in a few centuries would become the literary genre par excellence.

Includes texts translated from Wikipedia

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