Cover image for The justification of Johann Gutenberg : a novel
The justification of Johann Gutenberg : a novel
Morrison, Blake.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Morrow, [2002]

Physical Description:
259 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Chatto & Windus, 2000.
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He has been called the most influential man of the last millennium, he launched a communications revolution, and he changed the written word for ever. This is his tale, and the story behind his heretical invention.

Reading between the lines of history, Blake Morrison has woven a stunning novel around the few facts known about the life and work of Johann Gensfleisch, aka Gutenberg, master printer, charmer, con man and visionary -- the man who invented "artificial writing" and printed the "Gutenberg" Bible, putting thousands of monks out of work.

In a first novel that is both dazzling in its artistry and pure enchantment for the reader, Morrison gives Gutenberg's final testament: a justification and apologia dictated, ironically enough, to the kind of pretty young scribes whom his invention of movable metal type made redundant. Through the eyes of the ageing narrator, the Middle Ages are seen in a strange and vivid new light. The Plague, craft guilds, religious wars, chivalric love, sexual politics, scientific invention, the rise of capitalism -- all are here, but the human dramas they give rise to seem anything but "historical" or remote. What Morrison captures is a moment of cultural transition as dramatic and immediate as the communications revolution of today.

But, above all, there is the exasperating, endearing and finally haunting figure of Gutenberg himself a man who gambled everything -- money, honour, friendship and a woman's love -- on the greatest invention of the last millennium.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

"This book is a kind of penance, a confession of perfect sorrow, and by it I hope to save my soul," declares the protagonist--though he doesn't really mean it. In failing health, nearly blind, the man who invented the printing press dictates his life story because he fears death will erase his name from the rolls of history. Morrison's first novel is an inventive delight, a richly imagined portrait of a key historical figure about whom only the sketchiest details are known. His Gutenberg is complicated and real, a ruthless but shortsighted businessman who struggles to promote a heretical technology. Gutenberg's world--the medieval cities of Mainz and Strasbourg--is surprisingly nuanced. As Gutenberg pauses to question his memory or address his scribe, Morrison playfully explores the very act of the book's--or any book's--creation. Another theme, the meaning imposed by the medium (i.e., handwriting vs. print), will resonate with contemporary debaters who feel the printed page is somehow more honest than an electronically rendered one. Quite likely Gutenberg would favor the latter. --Keir Graff

Publisher's Weekly Review

Morrison (author of the well-received memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father?) dissects the downfall of the man who transformed the art of printing into an industry in this fictional biography, which illuminates the underexplored life of the great 15th-century inventor. The early episodes covering Gutenberg's upbringing are mundane, but the narrative gains interest when he becomes a metalsmith and rebels against the restrictive German guild system while developing the idea for his revolutionary printing press. Gutenberg builds his first press while working in a monastery, but when the church hierarchy disapproves of mass-producing Bibles, he is forced to seek funding from a rich burgher named Fust. Gutenberg plays fast and loose with Fust's money as he tries to get himself betrothed to the businessman's young daughter Christina, with whom he falls in love on the heels of a disastrous affair. But Gutenberg seriously underestimates Fust's business savvy, and as his deadlines continue to slip, he slides deeper into debt until Fust hauls him into court in an effort to ruin the brilliant inventor. Morrison reinvents Gutenberg as a competent but somewhat melodramatic and pedantic narrator, although he does manage to capitalize on the tension as Gutenberg's hubris gets the best of him in his business and romantic affairs. While Morrison never quite transforms the inventor into an unforgettable literary protagonist and much of the writing remains disappointingly pedestrian, the biographical and historical details make this well worth the read. (Oct. 8) Forecast: Considering that Gutenberg can be called the patron saint of the publishing world (and Morrison is a writer with publishing world ties-he used to be the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday), this novel should get respectable review coverage. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



I was born in Mainz on ... But let me not trot the usual river-bank path. Honest though I am pledged to be, I may surely be granted this omission - whether it springs from vanity or a fading memory I leave to you. For neatness' sake, I could offer 1400, so my birth and the century's are joined. To add a flourish, I might give a saint's day, John the Baptist's, June twenty-fourth. But those are games for chroniclers. I am past threescore but less than seventy. You have an abacus to work it out. Closer than that I will not come. My first years were spent ... Can I ride straight past them, too? Since I have kept few impressions of infancy, better that page of life stay blank. Only a single early memory will I own. It is dusk in the kitchen, and I am lying contented in my crib. Overhead, clothes are drying from a rack. By the hearth, my mother is telling the maid how to sew britches and nagging the cook to add more pepper to the stew. Beyond the door, a horse clops by, carrying some bearded wool-trader from market. The click of hooves without, the clank of pans within, the drift of woodsmoke in the rafters, the murmur of women absorbed in homely tasks - I feel at peace among them, as though still wombed or cauled. Suddenly, at the side of the cradle, a moon rises - my brother Friele smiling palely down. Pleased to have his attention for once, I smile back. Next thing my smile is wider still, for at the other side of the cradle a second planet has risen, the shining crimson of my sister Else. Sun and moon, sister and brother: how blessed I am to live beneath their playful orbit! Soon my cradle, which had been stirring only gently before, as from a breeze, begins to sway this way and that, like a boat moored on the Rhine. And as I laugh to be thus swayed between my siblings, so their eyes shining down at me gleam a little more sharply, and the swaying becomes a rocking, and the rocking becomes a bucking, and the bucking becomes a gale, and the gale a storm, and the storm a tempest, till the wooden vessel I am encribbed in is being tossed wildly to and fro. Now my content has turned to panic, and my laughter to fear. Too shocked to find my voice, I am at first a silent howl of rage, until my screams break open and drive the planets from the sky. Stirred to action, my mother hastens over, snatches me from the waves and takes me to the harbour of her bosom: 'Oh, Henne, poor little Henne,' she croons. Through my sobs and tears, I cannot find her nipple at first, but soon I am feeding and content again - my little voyage happily concluded in a lapping haven. Or so it should be. But in my memory there is more to come. The maid pricks her finger with a needle. The cook upsets a pot and scalds her hand. My mother, rushing to help, parts me from her breast and I am thrust half-fed back in the cradle - where I sob and bawl at being so rudely cast out. When my eyes clear from weeping, what I see is Friele and Else come back again - not to taunt me, but to take up residence at my mother's breasts, one to each teat, she (between scolding the maid and bandaging the cook) calmly allowing it. And so night falls in the kitchen. With what clarity that episode is printed on my memory! Even now the impression returns unwilled whenever I see a starlit sky, as though the galaxies were the profligate spray and scatter of all the milk intended for me but given to my siblings instead. And yet, in all honesty, I distrust the recollection. No infant can see back to the cradle. Friele and Else must by then have been long past weaning. And surely my mother, however distracted, would not have missed their roughness with me nor forgiven it so easily. No, that this is the sole picture retrieved from my first five years on earth suggests to me, when I study it cold, not a real event but a sentiment which infected my childhood - the feeling that I, as the third-born, came last in my mother's affection. Best call it not a memory but a dream - though one dreamt for good reason, since in dreams lie the achings of the soul. Whatever the truth of that episode, from it was formed this firm resolve: that since I came last in the family, I would be first at something else. As for the rest of my infancy, it is a passing lantern-show of swaddling bands, sore gums, wooden rattles, tops, hoops, rods, whips, tears, tantrums, messed underclothes, pulled hair, grazed knees, teeth left under pillows, burning candlewax, stone flags, water-rats, whiskery old aunts, causeless laughter and unreined grief. I do not mourn the loss of such detail as would make these phantoms live again in all their vigour. Once his forelife has been closed off from the mind, a man becomes free to pursue more profitable meditations. To recollect infancy would be to dwell perpetually in its foetid prison. Since it prefers to forget itself, I choose to forget it too. What did I get at my mother's bosom? I am tempted to say nothing of sustenance, but that would be unjust. Letters and numbers: she taught me those. Writing, too. We had a goosequill in the house, and an inkwell to draw from, and she inducted me in the art: which angle to hold a pen at so the ink flows freely from the nib; how I should bend and raise my wrist so as not to smudge the script ... Excerpted from The Justification of Johann Gutenberg by Blake Morrison Copyright © 2002 by Blake Morrison Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.