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10-16-14: Alix Christie Hires 'Gutenberg's Apprentice'

Fifteenth Century Start-Ups

Peter Schoeffer thinks he's well on his way to having it all — in Paris, September, 1450. But his foster father, Johann Fust, calls him away from a cosmopolitan life as an up-and-coming scribe for the Church, bidding him to return to Maintz, Germany, and work on a project his father is funding with a man named Gutenberg.

| In 'Gutenberg's Apprentice,' Alix Christie turns history we might think we all know into a page-turning thriller about the development of a new technology that will change the world Peter lives in to the world we live in. This is of course the printing press, and Christie manages the neat trick crafting a novel in a historical setting full of grit and authentic period detail that nonetheless makes readers think about the present.

The result is a reading experience that alters our perception of the present and past as they play off of one another. 'Gutenberg's Apprentice' is exciting and fun and thought-provoking because it is exciting and fun. Gutenberg would be pleased with the outcome of his invention.

Getting the voice and prose right for such a venture is critical, and Christie nails it from the beginning. An older Peter is asked to look back, and tell his story. As he does, Christie gives readers just the right about of dirty, filthy background details to keep the narrative real. Peter's not happy at what's being asked of him, and his initial reaction is almost off-putting. He hates Gutenberg and thinks the work he's handed is far beneath him, and he's not wrong — at first. As the novel moves forward, Christie lets Peter become accustomed to his new surroundings — as does the reader. It's crafty abns works a treat. The voice is really a pleasure to read.

It helps that every character is full of sharp, jagged edges. Gutenberg's a boss whose voice and manner are very familiar, but never anachronistic. Johann Fust plays the part of a venture capitalist and decent foster father. He never goes easy on his kid. Peter's co-workers are generally crude and unsophisticated as humans but achingly real characters. Most importantly, Christie makes their working relationships seem realitic for the time in every regard while in the same moment reminding us of our own concept of teanms and teamwork.

At the heart of this book is a very fascinating sense of double vision. Christie immerses us in this past world, which in many ways is alien to our way of thinking, particularly with regards to the Church and the way it wielded its economic as well as its theological powers. But as we read the story of the ways these characters interact with one another and the technology they are creating, and the way they create technology, it's impossible not to see the current-day parallels. The result is a very tense and involving reading experience; we're in this ultra-convincing past, thinking about our present, and wondering how both are going to end.

With 'Gutenberg's Apprentice' Alix Christie makes ample use of the technology whose inception she is describing. Her ability to craft a story between the lines of history past and present offers readers the Matryoshka-like experience of reading about the creation of reading as we know it, while suggesting we don't know about how it all started. We suspend our belief that we know what happened to the details of her story, to her characters, world building and prose. One thing is certain. This is a great example of why reading itself is still a powerful technology.

10-13-14: Maureen Corrigan 'So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures'

The Power of Re-Reading

There's an important implicit assumption at the heart of Maureen Corrigan's 'So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.' It is presumed that readers of her book have read F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' sometime in the past, and probably not too recently. The title and the book invite us to re-read Fitzgerald, and I'm going to suggest that readers follow my cue, and (re-)read Fitzgerald before reading Corrigan's work.

It's not that 'So We Read On' does not stand on it's own. It's a superbly architected story told with verve, intelligence and wit. But it is a story about reading and re-reading in particular, and re-reading one particular book. 'The Great Gatsby' is a natural choice for the great American Novel. It's a tough act to follow. But Maureen Corrigan has managed to write the perfect follow-on, the story of the story, the storyteller, and of every reader in a hall of mirrors to infinity. It is Escher as aesthete, a literary reflection on reflection itself. Once you are in, you won't ever want to leave. Nor will you need to.

After a gorgeous and fun introduction that meditates on all things Gatsby; the book, the writer, his life, the life of the book and the afterlife of the book, Corrigan takes us to Fitzgerald at a low point in his life, and bottom up, explores all the worlds of Gatsby. The grace and elegance on display here is subtle and elegant.

Corrigan has the storytelling knack to wear one guise after another with ultimate ease. One moment, we are with Fitzgerald and Zelda, the next, in the book itself with Gatsby and Daisy. She makes scholarship a sensuous joy as she explores archives, or the places where Fitzgerald lived. She can even duke it out with Fitzgerald himself, pulling a timeless quote from the novel and following up with her own acute insights in a manner that lets each complement the other.

Part of the reason for Corrigan's success here is her determination to make this a book for every reader, not just critics or academics. She's entertaining and intelligent, and marries these with an enthusiasm for Fitzgerald and his work that will sweep readers off their feet. She makes a lot of great points in a manner that lets readers share in her discoveries; for example Fitzgerald's sharp understanding of the class system. She provides a mirror for 'The Great Gatsby' that readers can enter and explore at will with a generous guide.

Given that this is a book about a book, it's surprising and nice that we never feel the presence of the elephant in the room. This may be an impression based on my personal experience. Having read 'The Great Gatsby' just before I read Corrigan's book, I was already suffused with wonder at Fitzgerald's achievement. But Corrigan's book is never overwhelmed by its subject. It's more of a tesseract frame about a perfectly rendered cube. She simply gets the book, and is able to convey just what it is she gets with enthusiasm and expertise.

The book itself is nicely done, with photos and maps that illustrate the life. Part of what Corrigan is creating here is a sort of time machine, one that will take us not just back into the age chronicled by the book, but as well, into the times and places and ways the author lived.

While 'So We Read On' is certainly a work of insightful criticism, it's really more of a story with flourishes of critical thought. Corrigan's path through 'The Great Gatsby' and the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald is idiosyncratic and unique, but her storytelling skills are nonpareil. If you don't read 'The Great Gatsby' before you read 'So We Read On,' rest assured that you will read it afterwards. You'll want to meet this book word by word after reading Corrigan's stories. And that idea, re-reading a book, has an immense power. Corrigan has the smarts to throw the switch and turn on that power, even as she guides our hands there.

New to the Agony Column

10-19-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 179: William T. Vollmann : Last Stories and Other Stories

10-16-14: Commentary : Alix Christie Hires 'Gutenberg's Apprentice' : Fifteenth Century Start-Ups

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Alix Christie : "This was the world's first tech start-up."

10-15-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 178: Alix Christie : Gutenberg's Apprentice

10-13-14: Commentary : Maureen Corrigan 'So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures' : The Power of Re-Reading

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Maureen Corrigan : "On his death in 1940, there were remaindered copies..."

10-08-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 177: Maureen Corrigan : So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures

10-03-14: Commentary : Lawrence Wright ' Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David' : Suspension of Belief

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Lawrence Wright : "...peace is possible..."

10-01-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 176: Lawrence Wright : Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

09-30-14: Commentary : Rebecca Alexander Will 'Not Fade Away' : A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Rebecca Alexander : " your hands are, and their arms are, engaged in this poetic dance..."

09-28-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 175: Rebecca Alexander : Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found

09-23-14: Commentary : Lauren Beukes Builds 'Broken Monsters' : Dream Reapers

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Live Interview with Lauren Beukes : "...fiction allows you to step into someone's head..."

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