Margaret Leslie Davis Opens the Saga
For the majority of us, when we look at any book we are mostly seeking the content which lies within, primarily worried with the words written inside the pages; after all, to judge a book by anything else would be preposterous. However, as those of us who have dived a bit deeper into the realms of literature know, there are many books which follow the contrary logic: their value is not determined by their content, but by their rarity and the history they carry with their existence. As with any type of collecting hobby, rare books are generally valued for their scarcity and cultural significance, and few fit the bell as well as the subject of Margaret Leslie Davis’ The Lost Gutenberg.
To save you the trip down to Wikipedia, the Gutenberg Bible was one of the earliest books to be mass-produced using a movable metal type printing, which in short revolutionized the book industry, heralding what has become known as the “Gutenberg Revolution”. It was originally printed sometime during the 1450s by Johannes Gutenberg, containing a Latin version of the Vulgate. To this day, it is believed only forty-nine copies of the book have survived, making it one of the rarest and most valuable books in the world.
Now, what exactly is Davis’ book about? Well, while none of us will likely ever own a copy of the book, we can certainly learn about it. More precisely, we can learn about the one specific copy whose saga across the ages the author had the privilege of tracing. In other words, we follow what is essentially the life and adventure of one of the afore-mentioned forty-nine copies, how it changed hands countless times before ending up in a steel vault in Tokyo, its owners ranging from secular monks to a nuclear physicist. With hundreds of years of history on its back, this Gutenberg Bible might just be one of the most well-travelled books in the world.
A Niche Interest
I feel the proper way to begin the review would be to issue a bit of a warning in regards to the subject of this book, in the sense it’s rather niche and definitely won’t appeal to every literature lover out there. It is essentially a history book which uses the copy of the Gutenberg Bible as a vehicle to explore various times and places in history, all while considering their ties to the book and literature in a broader sense. We also get a relatively profound excursion into the world of printing and learn all the ins and outs in regards to how it was revolutionized by the Bible.
In other words, if you don’t already have some sort of basic interest in these things, this is probably not where you are going to develop them; Davis assumes you are already a fan of this particular genre and doesn’t really look to ease you in with intrigue or too clever a narrative. In my opinion, this is the proper approach to writing this type of book, even if it does mean it will reach a smaller audience. All of the author’s efforts are dedicated to educating us and taking us on a trip through time where each step we take is its own reward.
Personally-speaking, while I am not exactly the biggest aficionado of rare book collections, I do have a passing interest in the topic with some preliminary knowledge, and I felt it was enough to allow me to get into the book; you definitely don’t need to be omniscient when it comes to the topic to enjoy it. Speaking from the perspective of someone who knew little of the subject, I always had the impression the learning was going at a smooth and steady pace, not a single time overwhelming me with information I didn’t care about.
Stories Untold but not Lost
At a first glance, you probably wouldn’t expect us to to be able to retrace much of the book’s existence. After all, keeping track of a single copy as it changes hands over centuries and without digital technology seems a bit too impossible of a task. However, you’ll probably be as surprised as I was when I first got a taste of the magnitude of the work historians can do sometimes. The list of its owners comprises a veritable who’s who with people from virtually all walks of life having held it at some point.
I found Davis did a commendable job at narrating their stories and getting us as profoundly acquainted with those people as our historical knowledge permits it. She has a very easy and light way of narrating the countless stories those people hold in store for us, to the point where I felt a tad bit sad whenever it was time to move on to a new owner.
Most importantly, I believe Davis managed to drive home the point of what makes rare books so special to their owners, how they can become objects of obsession no matter the time period or even culture we’re talking about. They’re not simply rare pieces of paper, they’re unique symbols of people, events, historical periods, or even ideas unlike any other. Ultimately, owning a rare book is more than just hunting for prestige and knowledge… it’s about owning a piece of history itself, and perhaps even becoming part of it one day.
The Final Verdict
The Lost Gutenberg by Margaret Leslie Davis might be a bit of a niche book, but if you’re even remotely interested in rare books and/or the Gutenberg Bible, then I strongly suggest you add this book to your collection. It is one of the most educative, evocative and easy-to-read historical books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a little while.
Margaret Leslie Davis is an American author who graduated from Georgetown University and earned a Master’s degree in professional writing at the University of Southern California. Many of her works have been featured in Vanity Fair, Good Morning America and the London Sunday Times, in addition to which she was awarded the Spur Award for Best Nonfiction Contemporary. Some of her more celebrated works include Dark Side of Fortune, Mona Lisa in Camelot and The Lost Gutenberg.