Did the printed page make us who we are?

I saw a post on someone’s Facebook page that quoted Carl Sagan on the nature of books and knowledge and it made me think.

This is the quote:



The irreplaceable Carl Sagan

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.

— Carl Sagan The path to freedom


Thoughts? You certainly wont find me arguing with the esteemed Mr. Sagan btw. But is that all there is to that story? That once man/woman kind discovered the secret of transitioning learning from our individual thoughts, rhymes and songs and instead recording them onto some medium: cave wall, pottery, papyrus, paper, whatever, did that simple act make knowledge accessible?

How old is the written word anyway? An ancient Mesopotamian poem gives the first known story of the invention of writing:

Because the messenger’s mouth was heavy and he couldn’t repeat (the message), the Lord of Kulaba patted some clay and put words on it, like a tablet. Until then, there had been no putting words on clay.

— Sumerian epic poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. c. 1800 BCE.

Bloody hell – so the history of writing dates back to at least 1800 BCE! Of course glyphs and pictographs have been around much longer, we have examples of those that have been dated back to 6600 BCE.

But Sagan’s quote specifically states books, so perhaps the invention of the printing press was at the heart of Sagan’s “great invention”?

So, Gutenberg?

That was Johannes Gutenberg in 1436 of course. He invented a new printing press that used precisely molded printing blocks to create high-quality and consistently identical printed pages. If that wasn’t enough, at the same time he created an oil-based ink that was much more durable than the previously used water-based inks. A true revolution was about to be launched on the world.

Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568

So in that era we now had the capabilities to create mass, identical copies. Erasmus for example became a best seller. He sold at least 750,000 copies of his works during his lifetime (1469–1536). I might be tempted to kill for those numbers!

And yet, one more element was needed to allow the true, timely and precise sharing of information. It was to come only a few years later, in 1470, when Cologne’s only second printer ever, a man called Arnold Ther Hoernen, printed a book titled “Sermo in festo praesentationis beatissimae Mariae virginis.”

Translated the book title says “The Sermon on the Feast of the Presentation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary,” but that’s irrelevant. What is important, the one subtle difference that would truly change the world forever? Hoernen unilaterally, amazingly, for the first time ever, after 3270 years of the written word having been in existence, thought “you know what bitches? Today, I’m gonna number these fuckers!” I am paraphrasing slightly.

Amazingly, that first numbered page is still in existence, you can see it in the image below half way down the page and in the right hand margin.

Earliest known book to have page numbers.

Literacy and the emergence of scholarship

Doesn’t seem like something that would rock the world right? But here is the thing, page numbers were revolutionary. They made it easy to quote, cite, and to cross reference — they made accessing, studying, and comparing texts much, much easier.

The printing press meant that the same information would fall on the same pages. That was an undeniable game changer. But the seemingly humble, simple page number allowed tables of contents, and indices to be created. Suddenly one reader could quickly and easily direct another reader to the same precise piece of information they needed to share. Scientific collaboration was made tangible.

Authorship, particularly as it related to scientific papers became more meaningful and profitable. It was suddenly important who had said or written what. This allowed the exact citing of references to become common and a required practice.

This era of mass communication permanently altered the structure of society. Ideas transcended borders, captured the imagination of the masses in the Reformation, and threatened the power of political and religious authorities.

Literacy increased exponentially, threatened the monopoly of the literate elite and with the increasing cultural self-awareness of the European languages, led to the slow but steady fall of Latin as the long held lingua franca.

I do hope you enjoyed this blog post. You can find other musings on seemingly random subjects and updates on my book projects on my website. Follow the blog and sign up for the regularly irregular newsletter.

Give me a like a follow and a share while you are here!

Better still, buy a book – they have page numbers and everything 🙂