Hot type, damp thighs

A news item last week got me to thinking about long-ago monks, sitting in their cold cells and hand-copying the Bible and other holy books with pen and ink, illuminating the text with intricate artwork, some of them distracted by images of dew-covered thighs while absently running a hand over the shaven tonsure atop their skulls.

Under this system, only the elite could afford a Bible. Eventually, a German jeweler named Johannes Gutenberg contrived a method for mass-producing books using movable, reusable type set by hand and fitted into a printing machine that pressed paper onto inked, raised letters and symbols. Next thing you know, the downtrodden could afford to pop for the Bible and other books, rose up in a variety of religious revolutions, and churned out their own tracts and other written exhortations of heresy using Gutenberg’s printing press.

It was an immeasurable technological achievement, although the basic mechanics of printing stayed pretty much the same for centuries. Whether done on a press or typewriter, it was still ink on type on paper.

When I started in newspapers, they were still commonly being printed with “hot type” formed from molten lead poured over set, movable letters and symbols arranged into words, sentences, paragraphs and pages.

The digital revolution in the interim has blessed us with fantasy noodlings come true. Hot type is long gone. Paper, though it still piles up in even the most high-tech of offices, isn’t necessary. The economics of publishing are in the early days of an overhaul because digital technology permits authors to publish their own works, with just-in-time processes that allow them to cheaply print books, one at a time, to meet specific demand.

Meantime, no-ink, no-paper “e-books” that can be downloaded from a source into your desktop, laptop, PDA and even some cell phones, have exploded.

The first to amass and disseminate e-books was the aptly named Project Gutenberg, a loose confederacy of literates who dedicated themselves in 1971 to the online dissemination of great books that had passed out of copyright, and historic documents. The first was an e-version of the Declaration of Independence typed in using all capitals, because lowercase wasn’t available. Today, still using volunteer labor, Project Gutenberg has put more than 10,000 books online, and shoots for a target of 400 more every month.

During the growth of this innovation, digital storage technology made huge leaps, allowing enormous amounts of text to be held on a single CD. One of the most valued, still, in my own collection is Corel’s long out-of-“print” World’s Greatest Classic Books. It still strikes me near dumb that this single little disc contains full-text versions of the complete works of Shakespeare; much of Poe, Melville (including Moby Dick), Twain and Dickens; 211 Grimms’ fairy tales; the Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon and eight other religious works; the Declaration, the Constitution, the Magna Carta and two dozen other “treaties and proclamations”; and thousands more unabridged classic books and documents.

Now comes word that Google will digitize and put online the entire library collections of the University of Michigan, Oxford, Harvard, Stanford and the New York Public Library. I wouldn’t have believed it but for the previous “impossible” advances in spreading the written word.

Still, my brain boggles and I start to feel old — until the mind drifts to thoughts of smooth, dewy thighs.

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