Inventing the printing press was not the same thing as inventing the publishing business. Technologically, craftsmen were ready to follow Gutenberg’s example, opening presses across Europe. But they could only guess at what to print, and the public saw no particular need to buy books. The books they knew, manuscript texts, were valuable items and were copied to order. The habit of spending money to read something a printer had decided to publish was an alien one.
Nor was print clearly destined to replace manuscript, from the point of view of the book owners of the day. A few fussy color-printing experiments aside, the new books were monochrome, dull in comparison to illuminated manuscripts. Many books left blank spaces for adding hand decoration, and collectors frequently bound printed pages together with manuscript ones.
“It’s a great mistake to think of an absolute disjunction between a manuscript world of the Middle Ages and a print world of the 16th century,” Pettegree said.
As in our own Internet era, culture and commerce went through upheaval as Europe tried to figure out what to make of the new medium and its possibilities. Should it serve to spread familiar Latin texts, or to promote new ideas, written in the vernacular? Was print a vessel for great and serious works, or for quick and sloppy ones? As with the iPad (or the Newton before it), who would want to buy a printed book, and why?