22 Feb

Celebrating Printed Book Day, Thanks to Gutenberg

Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland

“A day to celebrate books – the printed kind” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (February 23, 2015).

Librarians, bibliophiles, jaded English majors and editors, booksellers and writers – rejoice! February 23 is Printed Book Day, a day when endangered species the world ’round celebrate the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press.

Granted, for these types the celebration is a bit subdued and not unlike most days of the year, which typically consist of diving into the pages of Faulkner or Fitzgerald, a hot cup of chamomile tea at the ready. Introverts are not typically known for their raucous festivities, and Jay Gatsby makes for a more entertaining party guest anyway.

Printed Book Day marks the anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing of the Gutenberg Bible, traditionally held to have been on Feb. 23, 1455. It was the first Western book made with movable type, making Gutenberg’s press perhaps the greatest invention known to civilization outside of the toilet.

There are only 48 known surviving copies of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible, one of which was just donated to Princeton University. A single leaf from a Gutenberg Bible can fetch close to $100,000, while a complete volume might attract up to $35 million if the distinguished universities housing the remaining copies ever decide to hawk them on eBay.

There’s a reason the Gutenberg Bible is so valued.

The movable-type printing press transformed society in ways incalculable. No longer were books, once copied by hand, relegated to the wealthy few who could afford them. Books, and the knowledge held therein, were now accessible to all classes of people. Gutenberg had leveled the playing field, and the world in turn evolved exponentially. The Internet is doing much the same today, as individuals in even the remotest parts of the globe can access porn and cat videos with equal ease.

Not everyone is excited by Printed Book Day, of course. Our woody friends the trees are up in limbs about the anniversary and would rather you forgot the entire observance. Borrowing a ploy from the Chick-fil-A cows and their “Eat Mor Chikin’ ” playbook, forests everywhere are campaigning for us to “Read More E-books!”

While the campaign got off to a promising start several years ago, it seems to be leveling out a bit. According to Nielsen Books & Consumers, e-books were outsold by printed books in the first half of 2014, with e-books nabbing only 23 percent of the market. Hardcover books and paperbacks made up 25 percent and 42 percent of book purchases, respectively. More distressing for the trees, e-books dropped to 21 percent in the third quarter of 2014. Perhaps there is room for both printed books and e-books in the new publishing paradigm after all.

That does not sit well with Shady Oak Tree, president of Treesters Local 413.

“Things are not looking up for us trees,” he told me during a meeting at a local park. “The housing market is starting to rebound, wooden bats are making a comeback in Little League, forest fires are on the rise and e-book sales are leveling off. The only thing we have going for us is the struggling newspaper industry. Curse Gutenberg and your Printed Book Day!”

“But what about your legacy?” I countered. “You’ll have to come down sometime. Maybe it’ll be lightning. Perhaps a chainsaw. Or a long and painful death brought on by invasive beetles. What will your legacy be? Wouldn’t you like to live on forever as the pages of Joyce’s Ulysses?”

The old tree creaked. “And be stuck on June 16 for eternity, with Leopold Bloom no less? I think I’ll pass.”

“But you could be the next great American novel!”

Another creak. “Or I could end up as the next Fifty Shades of Grey. No thank you. I’d rather be reincarnated as a roll of Charmin.”

I admit he had a point. Still, I am not ready to pick up an e-book and save the trees. The printed page, with its unique bouquet of dust mites, sawdust, forests and the past, all captured in one arousing pheromone, was my first love. I cannot betray her.

Some may abuse her by dog-earing their place in a book. Others may neglect her in favor of the latest e-model on the block. But the printed page, and the inspired order of letters inked on her canvas, is home to me.

And it is to the printed book I shall return each night, faithful till e-death do us part.