By Michael Webb
The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. Edited by Mathieu Lommen. Thames & Hudson, $65.
Too many obituaries for the printed word have appeared on-line, and most will vanish into the virtual wasteland that swallows most digital utterances. Print has survived for more than five centuries and it will take more than Twitter and blogs to render it obsolete. Rather, we seem to be returning to the Middle Ages, when a well-educated minority read books and everyone else relied on preachers and gossip. So, three cheers for Thames & Hudson, which continues to publish inspiring titles even as their competitors dumb down.
This is an aesthetic history of the book, a celebration of typography and printed illustrations from their invention to the present day. It’s full of fascinating information. Movable type was first used by Gutenberg in Mainz in 1450; within 20 years there were dozens of print workshops all over Europe. Soon after, it became an industry employing a multitude of typefaces. Plantin, Bodoni and Baskerville designed fonts that are still in use. Contemporaries probably deplored printed books, simply illustrated with woodcuts and engravings, comparing them unfavorably to the hand-crafted beauty of illuminated manuscripts, though these were limited to a privileged few and were mostly devotional. In contrast, books rapidly embraced all of human knowledge and speculation. The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 attempted a history of the world on a monumental scale, and 400 of the original 1400 copies have survived.
Printing was born in the early Renaissance, and it was the ideal medium for that age of scholarship and discovery, and the triumph of learning over obscurantism. Increasingly, books were published in the vernacular rather than Latin, and the best of them were created by master printers and artists of the caliber of Dürer and Leonardo. For a century, the Dutch dominated the book trade, and the classics illustrated here were selected from the University of Amsterdam’s Special Collections. In the 19th century, the introduction of electrotyping brought books to the masses and relegated letterpress to the collectors market.
Browsing this extraordinary compendium, you are drawn into vanished worlds of artistry and invention, before turning the page to avant garde layouts conceived 90 years ago by Fernand Léger, El Lissitsky and Karel Teige, which are still startling. All too soon, we are in familiar territory. Monty Python is juxtaposed with Massimo Vignelli; the surprises never stop.