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The Printed Word and the Modern World

Going back in history, the earliest signs of “print technology” are found in China, Japan and Korea. In fact, for a long time, China was the primary producer of printed materials in the entire region. The state was actually responsible for printing high volumes of textbooks for the bureaucracy. By the 7th century, printed materials expanded beyond the use of government officials. And with more and more urban life, the public began to read more and more – everything from fiction, to poetry, to biographies. This is also a time when reading became very much a leisure activity.

In time, Chinese missionaries introduced hand-printed “technology” to Japan, and bookstores began to emerge with hand-printed material of all types – books on music, etiquette, even cook books. At the end of the 1200’s, “woodblock” printing techniques came to Europe, in particular to Italy, after which time the entire continent was enjoying printed books. By the 15th century, the “woodblock” printing techniques practically replaced books that were written in calligraphy. By the time of Gutenberg, print technology took a major leap forward, and new world unfolded.

Gutenberg used the model of an olive press as a prototype for his so-called printing press, and he used metal typesetting for the letters. The first book that he printed was a version of the Bible. By then, from the mid 1400’s to the mid 1500’s, printing presses appeared in most of Europe. This is when a new reading audience emerged in the millions. Increasingly, books became cheaper, and numerous copies of a book could be printed and produced at a reasonable cost. There was more and more access to books and a new reading culture began to germinate across the land.

With printed materials, opportunities for debate and discussion were created. As such, there were some who began to question some of the established ideas of religion. Needless to say, this was a challenge to organized religion, and lists of “prohibited books” began to emerge.  But there was not much that could suppress literacy levels, and soon, literacy levels were up to 80% in many parts of Europe. Understandably, growing literacy in the population created a passion for reading, and booksellers sold all manner of reading material from town to town to town.

Progressively, book reading provided access to the ideas of scholars, scientists and philosophers. New ideas and perspectives could be openly debated, and the general public could now discuss and often re-assess established notions. Indeed, by the 19th century, the large number of readers now included women, children, and the working class. This is also a time when lending libraries became community hubs for workers and the lower middle class. Innovation after innovation would have a cumulative effect on the quality of reading materials, and on the audience.

By the 20th century, electricity and technology accelerated the printing process, allowing for high volumes of material to be printed, in myriad sizes and shapes, and in many colours. This is an age where printed materials would develop exponentially all over the world.

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