Gutenberg’s Apprentice – Alix Christie

Gutenberg’s Apprentice is Alix Christie’s first novel and an auspicious start to her fiction career. Christie apprenticed to different master printers (Lester Lloyd, the longtime foreman of the Mackenzie & Harris type foundry of San Francisco, which Arion Press now owns, and James & Carolyn Robertson at the Yolla Bolly Press). The book is dedicated to them and other master printers. Of course it would take a printer to understand and appreciate the story of Gutenberg and his workshop to be able to write about it in a compelling way.

The book revolves around the printing of the Gutenberg Bibles, and retells (imagined) the story behind its printing – of the men, the tools, the methods, and their trials & tribulations. We’re introduced to Gutenberg as a psychopathic man out to profit both monetarily and immortality. The main character is Peter Schoeffer (adopted son of Johann Fust) – which probably contributes partly to the “fictitious” aspect of this novel (Schoeffer did marry Fust’s daughter in reality, but this was many years after they became partners).

Mainly set in Mainz, as can be seen by the book’s endpaper maps, the design of the book itself is very nice. Casebound (not quarter cloth), with a die-cut dustcover that reveals the faces’ design on the cover itself. Paper quality could have been much better (it’s the matte semi-opaque type of paper, with a fake deckle edge). For a hardcover book, it’s hard to do much better with today’s mass production and not be marketed as a deluxe edition.

The typography of Gutenberg’s Apprentice is where most of the focus of the book’s design was put, and it succeeded. There are alternating viewpoints throughout the book (broken into chapters). The drop caps of each chapter is selected based on which viewpoint it’s from (both are from Schoeffer’s point of view, but one is several years in the future while the other is the present-day Gutenberg Bible producing timeline). The titles and body are set in Historical Fell Type, designed by Peter de Walpergen. Main chapter (present-day Gutenberg production) drop caps come from Linotype “Like Gutenberg Caps” from the Monotype company.

The floriated drop caps for the Sponheim Abbey chapters are facsimiles of illuminated initials from Gutenberg’s final book – the Catholicon of Balbus (held by Yale).

Since the typography itself is such an essential part of book design, it’s only appropriate that the narrative of the book discusses calligraphy and the production of metal type in depth with accessible knowledge. All the concepts of the book-making trade is on display through Christie’s marvelous descriptive language. The design of type from the first samples to the production of casts and the improvement of the metal type production is described thoroughly. It’s said that Gutenberg performed alchemy to produce the printing press, but Christine has performed literal alchemy by making the entire story behind the Gutenberg Bible a treasure trove full of interesting facts and compelling drama.

While it’s not nonfiction – it’s generally historically accurate and I doubt anybody else could have pulled off this novel while still making it eminently readable and intriguing.

The best fiction published in 2014 thus far for me – highly recommended, especially if you enjoy reading about books or fine press books. You’ll enjoy a rollicking good medieval tale along with learning about the process of making books.

Overall Grade – A
ISBN:  (First Edition, 2014)
Publisher: Harper
Binding: Casebound, die-cut dustcover, fake deckle edge, headbands (Very Good)
Paper: Matte, newsprint-like at times (Good)

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