Contagion out of China

Surely, gentle reader is against printing. Although it may have some legitimate uses, it contributes to literacy in irresponsible ways. Generally, I’m opposed to making copies, whether we are stamping out car fenders or restaurant menus today. It even looks like cheating.

Blueberries are also produced in volume, along with corn cobs and mice, with some human intervention; it is true that, from one moment to the next, we want one thing or another. And it is true that I have felt somewhat paganized by a bowl of blueberries (plus maple syrup and thick cream). But never, to my knowledge, by a single blueberry; whereas, a single sheet of printed book may cause all kinds of mischief.

The Chinese noted the difficulty, not so much from inking stone in the Han Dynasty, and pressing cloth over it; nor when woodblocks were first employed in the T’ang; but later among the Sung elect. From laziness, I assume, they introduced moveable characters in carved wood or clay. (In a dangerous innovation, the Koreans soon cast type in metal.) Learned books were printed in runs of one hundred copies or less. They would (at first) find their ways only into the studies of reliable, backward-looking, Confucian scholars.

But the impartial observer would notice that thousands were printed from some of these blocks, for “pop lit” including Chinese novels. In cities, especially, whole populations were at risk of becoming prosaic. Outside entertainment had invaded previously innocent minds. Within another eight centuries or so, there’d be radio, television, Internet, fake news; to say nothing of repeating floorplans in skyscrapers.

A Chinese sage slipped out of a book on my shelf — I think it was Volume Five, Part One of Needham. He had been warning of the consequences even at the time. It was like gunpowder. The Orientals had discovered that, too, but had the decency not to use it (at first). Printing was also a kind of explosion.

People’s lives were seriously disturbed. Primary schools became commonplace, and literacy was spread, recklessly among the urban masses. As books became very numerous and cheap, they were read quite casually. Soon there were catalogues and advertising flyers. Trade manuals encouraged wild, do-it-yourself attitudes. The artisan class bought in heavily; many set up print shops to advance their own wealth and prestige. Men of humble origin would rise in society. Spoilt, discontented children would trail in their wake.┬áPrinting has much to answer for.

Europeans are slow, and more centuries would pass until the Catholic Church made perhaps her greatest error. This was to allow Gutenberg and others to spring moveable type on Europe, and actually to encourage it. Within mere decades we had the Protestant Reformation on our hands. By now we are almost used to this chaos.

Mea culpa: I early formed the habit of reading books myself, and by the age of five had acquired an addiction. It hardly improved my behaviour; in fact it put all sorts of ideas into my head. Compounding this, I also learnt to write. And I continue to do it, day after day, because, quite frankly, I cannot help myself.