As Marshal Mcluhan and Elizabeth Eisenstein have shown, the chief cultural effects of the printed book derive from its combined qualities of fixity and multiplicity. Unlike the manuscript, the object that contains and conveys a text in pre-print writing cultures, the modern printed book does not vary from copy to copy. At the same time, multiplicity (having many, many copies of essentially the same text)

• permits readers widely separated in time and space to encounter essentially the same text. By doing so, print creates a new kind of virtual community of readers: People who have read the same text can share ideas and information even though they live hundreds of years or miles apart.

• creates a mass audience, one vastly larger than possible in a manuscript culture.

• radically changes the notions of a chirographic (manuscript) culture about how to preserve texts: one creates more texts rather than permitting fewer readers.

• creates a kind of self-teaching machine that turns out to be far more accessible and hence more quickly democratizing than manuscript texts can ever be.

• and therefore contributes importantly to our basic conceptions of education and scholarship.

• emphasizes interiority (Romanticism, autobiography).

• leads to modern (though not to postmodern or poststructuralist) conceptions of authorship, creativity, intellectual property, and copyright: the need to promote the economic survival of those involved in the book business — authors, printers, booksellers, and publishers (the last three were originally often the same person) — leads directly to modern notions of creativity and originality, since these distinguishing features or qualities permit individuals to own texts themselves and not just the individual printed book, which is the physical instantiations of a text.

• becomes so central a part of western culture that the effects of printed book becomes invisible with the result that we can became aware of the way the book shapes the way we think and act only after other media, such as cinema, television, and digital computing, begin to rival it as a means of storing and communicating word and image.

fictionalizes earlier literature written before print technology: Homer spoke or sung The Iliad, Vergil and Chaucer similarly spoke or sung The Aeneid and The Canterbury Tales while reading from their manuscripts, but we almost always read them silently from books, having a very different experience.


Bolter, J. David. Writing Space: The Computer in the History of Literacy. Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1990.

Pioneering study of the different forms literacy has taken within the different information regimes produced by technologies of writing, print, and electronic text.

Bornstein, George, and Ralph G. Williams, eds. Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Discussions of how computing has radically changed the way we think about the printed book, specifically about how scholars now understand the notion of an accurate or authoritative text of a literary work originally written for publication as a printed book.

Boyle, James. Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of Information Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

[On copyright, intellectual property law, and their effects upon culture and other relations to it.]

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as An Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Seminal study of the often unexpected effects of print technology upon European culture. Whereas the printed book was thought to be an agent of peace and knowledge, it, among other effects, led to centuries of religious wars.

Kernan, Alvin. Printing Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Fascinating explanation of how Johnson took advantage of newly created copyright laws and thereby made himself the first truly modern author, the first to depend upon purchases by readers rather than upon the patronage of the wealthy. In other words, commodification of literature as a good thing.

Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Chapters on the way computing reconfigures our assumptions about text, self, authorship, and writing illuminate the way the printed book functions as a central paradigm of our culture.

_____. Hypertext 3.0: New Media and Critical Theory in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

The most recent version takes into account recent developments in digital culture.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Written in what I now realize to be a proto-hypertextual style, McLuhan's pioneering Gutenberg Galaxy has long proved one of the seminal books in your webmaster's intellectual development.

_____. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (1964). London: Routledge, 2001.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.

An excellent exploration of oral cultures by someone who was also a great scholar of the Renaissance world of print.

Last modified 10 June 2010