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Hallo again to all.

We are, in many ways, People of the Book. A US-produced documentary film about Islam released in 2001 notes that

'Muslims believe that God had previously revealed Himself to the earlier prophets of the Jews and Christians, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims therefore accept the teachings of both the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospels. They believe that Islam is the perfection of the religion revealed first to Abraham (who is considered the first Muslim) and later to other prophets. Muslims believe that Jews and Christians have strayed from God's true faith but hold them in higher esteem than pagans and unbelievers. They call Jews and Christians the "People of the Book".'

The Arabic term for 'People of the Book' is 'ahl al-Kitāb' (أهل الكتاب if your computer can display Arabic). The particular book it is ATorahreferring to is the Bible (well, parts of it). But if you look closely at the shelves in Anglican homes and churches, you will find, in addition to a Bible, some prayer books, some hymn books, and many more that seem less directly related to our faith. And occasionally a novel like P D James' Death in Holy Orders seems to be halfway in between. We are not just People of the Book, we are People of Books. Treasuring books seems to be a very common Anglican trait.

Books stand for constancy. We can hold in our hand a certain book published in 1709, and know that if we take proper care of it, a century from now our heirs can do the same, and the book will provide the same information and the same good feel. It is trite to note that the Gutenberg press and the invention of printing changed the world, but if you sit down at parish coffee hour to discuss its effect, the most common understanding of its effect is that it made books something that ordinary people could own. That is true, but it also created the concept of an 'edition', of there being a hundred or a thousand or a million books that were all the same, printed from the same typeset master. The essence of a printing press is that you put a lot of work into preparing the master, and then you take advantage of that work to print a large number of identical copies from that master. As printing technology evolved, the nature of the master changed and evolved, starting with wooden typeface letters and progressing to various forms of lithography and photographic plate-making. The state of the art in printing presses, something like a Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105, can print 5 top-quality pages a second until it runs out of paper, while its operator sleeps. It makes many many copies of the same thing, fast and well.

Our culture has utterly absorbed the notion of an edition of thousands of copies of identical books printed from the same original. Our prayer book is page-by-page, letter-by-letter identical with your prayer book, provided that we have the same edition. The economics of the printing press — that it is expensive to set up a page for printing, but very cheap to print one more page — is so much part of our notion of the meaning of 'book' that it's hard at first to factor it out. Many book collectors search out first-edition books, and consider them to be more valuable than later editions. Catalogs listing collectible books for sale often indicate the size of the press run — how many copies were printed — in offer listings.

There are now half a dozen manufacturers selling devices that can print one copy of a book 'on demand', in very good quality, and then turn its attention to printing one copy of another book. The people preparing those books can be anywhere in the world, transmitting the book to the printer and then waiting patiently for the delivery company to deliver it. Sold first into niche markets, such as children's books that featured by name the child for whom it was bought, these devices are now quite common, quite mainstream, and have slowly been putting more-traditional printing technologies out of business. It is only about 30% more expensive to print one copy of a book 100 times than to print 100 copies on a traditional printing press, so people are actually doing it.

How to remove your own appendix (book cover)When laser printers first entered the retail market in the mid 1980s, they entered a world full of people who instinctively believed that anything with a justified right margin was true. You could print 10 copies of a pamphlet on your laser printer and distribute them to people who would assume that they were very official because they looked so professional. Such printers are now everywhere, and everyone has seen beautifully-formatted trash. The physical form of a pamphlet is no longer part of its impact. The same is not yet true of books. If you are holding in your hand a nicely-bound book that says 'Book of Common Prayer' or 'Holy Bible' or 'Perform an appendectomy on yourself', there is a deep ingrained sense that you ought to trust it. If it says 'Holy Bible' then, well, it must be a Holy Bible. Who knows what it really is? But for now, something that has the physical form of a book is treated by most people with a certain respect, without even considering whether or not it is fraudulent. It can't be fraudulent: it's a book produced by a publisher.

We figure that it's just a matter of time before some parish somewhere produces counterfeit hymnals or counterfeit Common Worship volumes or even counterfeit Bibles. Don't like a word or a phrase in the liturgy? Change it and print your own. Uncomfortable with some Bible verse? Print your own edition that omits or modifies that verse. Freedom of the press extends only to the person who owns one, but now everyone has access to one.

Imagine finding yet another reason for Anglicans to cling to the past! 'Back in the days when books were books, when books were trustworthy ...'. In the meantime, we're contemplating making a print-on-demand book out of some of these Anglicans Online front-page letters. We know that we could sell at least 8 copies.

See you at next week's edition.

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Last updated: 18 January 2009

*You can marvel at the workings of a Heidelberg Speedmaster printing press on this YouTube video.

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