Four seismic shifts have rocked human communication: the invention of writing, the alphabet, mechanical type and the printing press, and digitization. Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?
Gutenberg’s Fingerprint trolls the past, present, and evolving future of the book in search of an answer. Part memoir and part philosophical and historical exploration, the book finds its muse in Hugh Barclay, who produces gorgeous books on a hand-operated antique letterpress. As Simonds works alongside this born-again Gutenberg, and with her son to develop a digital edition simultaneously, her assumptions about reading, writing, the nature of creativity, and the value of imperfection are toppled.
Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is a timely and fascinating book that explores the myths, inventions, and consequences of the digital shift and how we read today.
Check out our handy reader’s guide to accompany you while reading this new book. These questions may also be useful to those reading as part of a book club. Gutenberg’s Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds is out now!
- In what formats do you read books: Print hardcover? paperback? computer? phone? tablet? dedicated reader? How does your reading experience differ for each?
- It is “the curse of the innovator: to make the strange familiar” (p. 68). How have digital designers drawn on traditional books to create new reading technologies? Why do you think they try to make digital technologies mimic print books? What are the implications of breaking free of Gutenberg and leaving paper books behind? Do you worry about a future without paper books?
- Are digital books likely to improve or set back literacy among young children? Or will they have any effect at all?
- How important is it to hold on to tangible pieces of the past? Do you keep print or digital records of your life, such as letters, photographs, or other memorabilia? Why? What are the pros and cons of print versus digital libraries and archives?
- Gutenberg’s Fingerprint weaves the history of bookmaking and the creation of The Paradise Project together with personal details about the lives of its author, Merilyn, her son Erik, and artisans Hugh and Emily. How does each of these individual artists influence The Paradise Project? What role does intuition play in the bookmaking process?
- What surprised you most about Thee Hellbox Press? What do you think about Hugh’s approach to book-making?
- How do new book forms empower or benefit a reader? Do these changes benefit writers, too? How might they impact the writing process?
- At the end of page 270, as the group puts the press to bed, Hugh exclaims, “Imagine what it would be worth, a book with Gutenberg’s fingerprint!” Why do you think such a mark — ostensibly an error — would have so much value? What does it represent? Why do you think Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is the title of this book?
- At her book launch, Merilyn says, “I realize that here, today, my book and the wider world are linked in a way that I assumed was solely digital, connections zapping off in all directions, limitless” (pp. 304–305). How do books bring communities together? Do paper and digital books function differently in a culture? What examples do you see of this in Gutenberg’s Fingerprint?
- On page 313, Merilyn paraphrases Brian O’Leary, stating that in the near future, “publishing is set to shift gears, to focus instead on ‘context’: who wants the book and how it will be sold, rather than what it is about.” What do you make of this idea? How do you think it will impact you as a reader? How might it impact writers?
- What do you make of the branding of book culture — books being used as décor and fashion pieces? Have print books become obsolete, interesting oddities that make for quirky displays? Or are they staples in our culture, finally being recognized and celebrated as such?
Keep the conversation going in the comments. Happy Reading!