Book Review Thursday: Gutenberg’s Apprentice


This debut novel by author Alix Christie takes the reader back in time to mid-fifteenth century Europe.  Both sacred and secular books were, unlike today, scarce because each one was penned by scribes whose work was considered divinely inspired.  Not until Johann Gutenberg invented a new way to mass-produce books was there any other way.

This work of historical fiction features Peter Schoeffer, one of three men who helped bring the holy scriptures to the masses.  Gutenberg and Peter’s foster father (he was an orphan) Johann Fust were business partners – Gutenberg provided the ingenuity and Fust the finances (begrudgingly most of the time).  Peter was a gifted young man with ambitions to be one of the finest scribes in the land.

Fust was always suspicious of Gutenberg’s intentions and when Peter returned from his schooling his father asked him to go work for the “master” and keep an eye on things for him.  At that time, Gutenberg’s invention or any similar mechanical device was considered a “work of the devil”.  At first Peter is reluctant to participate but as he gets hands-on experience and sees the potential, he is intrigued and eventually becomes immersed in the project, becoming its foreman.

One might have supposed that Gutenberg, the first man to make it possible to mass-produce God’s Word, was himself a holy and pious man.  Far from it, if the book’s portrayal of him is accurate.  For Gutenberg, it was all about money and prestige – a way to make a name for himself.

The book chronicles the ups and downs of getting the project off the ground and running – and keeping it secret from the rest of the world lest someone steal Gutenberg’s invention or condemn him for blasphemy.  The project took years, not days or weeks, to complete.  Most of the book is written between 1450 and 145__ with a few intermittent chapters which look forward to the 1480’s when Peter is older and has become a successful book seller.

I’m never sure when I’m reading books from this era whether or not the tone and language is accurate.  This one gave me the same impression as another one I read (and reviewed here) awhile back, The Mapmaker’s Daughter.  The vernacular was sometimes coarse, and as another reviewer put it when describing the intimate passages in the book, “seem[ed] taken from the playbook of the pulp romance writers.”1  Those parts may have been unnecessary, as other reviewers have observed, because Schoeffer’s story was fascinating enough to keep the reader’s attention without the romantic interludes.

Christie’s grandfather, Lester Lloyd, was the foreman of the last major ‘hot type’ foundry on the west coast.  According to the book’s web site, in her mid-twenties Christie apprenticed at Yolla Bolly Press, operated by master printers James and Carolyn Robertson.  Her book is a good first effort and obviously well-researched and passionately-written.  If you like historical fiction about that era or have an interest in the history of the transition from pen to print, you’ll find this a good read.

Rating:  ★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.
  1. Reviewed by Chris Wienandt Review of Gutenberg’s Apprentice

Leave a Comment