Lessons for Internet debates from the birth of print

Posted on August 14, 2010  /  0 Comments

Occasionally a piece on what the Internet is doing to our brains catches our attention. Sometimes we address topics of censorship and privacy though it is not our main focus. A review of a book on the early days of the printed book in Europe (not Korea) caught our attention. Should be interesting reading–the book. The review definitely is.

Pettegree writes well and amasses information superbly. He refrains from explicitly comparing the technology of print, and its historical impact, with the technology of the Internet. Implicit similarities include issues of intellectual property and privacy, of power, of libel, as well as a general challenge to old modes — the proliferation of personal expression, the contentiousness, the question of how to capitalize, and capitalize upon, a new medium.

This scholarly restraint, leaving his readers to compare and contrast, seems wise. And there are certainly contrasts with the modern age. Describing the immensely popular verse romances like “Orlando Furioso,” for example, Pettegree shows that in the Renaissance these works were not read in the prolonged, silent trance experienced by readers of Dickens or Flaubert. Modern readers recognize the quiet, lone hours spent by Henry James’s character Isabel Archer, that immersive reading experienced not only by devotees of James but by escapist fans of the genre known as “airport books.” In contrast to this industrial-age solitude of print narrative, the 16th-century verse romances and other episodic books like “The Decameron” were suited for reading aloud — enjoyed in a communal, social setting.

In an appended “Note on Sources,” Pettegree allows himself to acknowledge that, “Ironically, it has been the next great information revolution — the Internet — that has allowed this work on the first age of print to be pursued to a successful conclusion.” Digital information newly available from all over the world enhanced his research on early print culture — in all its frequently vulgar, ephemeral, zany and menacing variety.

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