There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone
“Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning” by W.S. Merwin from Garden Time. © Copper Canyon Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
On this day in 1452, the first section of the Gutenberg Bible was finished in Mainz, Germany, by the printer Johannes Gutenberg. Little is known of Gutenberg’s early history or his personal life except that he was born around the year 1400, the youngest son of a wealthy merchant. But from the time of the appearance of his beautiful Bibles, he has left an indelible mark on human culture.
Ancient books had primarily been written on scrolls, though an innovation in the second century A.D. — that of the codex, a sheaf of pages bound at one edge — gave us the familiar book form we recognize today. Early codices were produced by hand by monks in scriptoriums, working with pen and ink, copying manuscripts one page at a time so that even a small book would take months to complete and a book the size of the Bible, rich with color and illuminations, would take years.
Gutenberg’s genius was to separate each element of the beautiful, calligraphic blackletter script commonly used by the scribes into its most basic components — lowercase and capital letters, punctuation, and the connected ligatures that were standard in Medieval calligraphy — nearly 300 different shapes that were then each cast in quantity and assembled to form words, lines, and full pages of text. He also invented a printing press to use his type, researching and refining his equipment and processes over the course of several years. In 1440, Gutenberg wrote and printed copies of his own mysteriously titled book, Kunst und Aventur [Art and Enterprise], releasing his printing ideas to the public, and by 1450 his movable-type printing press was certainly in operation.
It is unclear when Gutenberg conceived of his Bible project, though he was clearly in production by 1452. He probably produced about 180 copies — 145 that were printed on handmade paper imported from Italy and the remainder on more luxurious and expensive vellum. Once complete, the Bibles were sold as folded sheets, the owners responsible for having them bound and decorated, so that each surviving copy has its own unique features like illumination, dashes of color, marks of ownership, and notes and marginalia.
Only four dozen Gutenberg Bibles remain, and of these only 21 are complete, but what Gutenberg created went far beyond the reach of those volumes. By beginning the European printing revolution, he forever changed how knowledge was spread, democratized learning, and allowed for thoughts and ideas to be widely disseminated throughout the known world. In his time, Gutenberg’s contemporaries called this “the art of multiplying books” and it was a major catalyst for the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and even the Protestant Reformation. In 1997, Time Magazine named Johannes Gutenberg “Man of the Millennium” and dubbed his movable type as the most important invention of a thousand years. His name is commemorated by Project Gutenberg, a group of volunteers working to digitize and archive cultural and literary works, while making them open and free to the public, and was even placed in the skies as a the planetoid Gutemberga.
As Mark Twain wrote in 1900, in a congratulatory letter to mark the opening of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, “What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage … for the bad that his colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored.”
It’s the birthday of poet W.S. Merwin (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Merwin made up hymns before he could even write. He studied creative writing at Princeton University and often showed his poems to the poet John Berryman, then a graduate student. Merwin asked Berryman how to know if his poems were any good. Berryman replied: “You can’t. You can never be sure. You die without knowing.” Merwin later included the lines in a poem.
He currently lives in Hawaii, in a house built on an old pineapple farm where he preserves many native plants. Merwin’s recent poetry reflects his passion for conservation. His collections include The Vixen (1996), The River Sound (1999), The Pupil (2001), Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005), and The Shadow of Sirius (2008), winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent collection is Garden Time (2016).
It’s the birthday of American writer Truman Capote (books by this author), born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana (1924). Capote is best known for his tart novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and the nonfiction book In Cold Blood (1966), which is largely responsible for inventing the genre of true crime writing.
It’s the birthday of writer and concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel (books by this author), born in a small village in Transylvania (1928). He grew up in a Hasidic community and learned to love reading by studying the Pentateuch and other sacred texts. When he was 15, he and his family were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother, sister, and father were all killed before World War II was over.
Wiesel survived the camp, but he couldn’t write about his experiences for 10 years. Finally, a mentor, François Mauriac, persuaded Wiesel to write about the war. He wrote a 900-page memoir, which he condensed into the 127-page book called Night (1955). Night has become one of the most widely read books about the Holocaust. In 1986, Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in literature for his writing and teaching.
A passage from Night: “Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing. And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
"For God's sake, where is God?"
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
"Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows..."