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The Betamax of Printing


Peter Harrington Books of London just started up a blog about interesting items at their book shop (found due to the Fresh Signals news feed at Coudal.com). Today they shared a very rare find: a leaf from the block book Ars Moriendi, The Art of Dying. What they and I find interesting is the method of printing used, an obsolete technique that they call ‘the Betamax of Printing.’

Block books, also called xylographica, were printed in Europe from about 1450 onwards. They were made by engraving whole pages into wood and rubbing that against paper, rather than using expensive metal type. It was a way to make books cheaply and for a wider (and poorer) audience. Most block books were about religious matters, such as excepts from the Bible and theological matters. The Art of Dying is a guide to dying without sin in order to pass into the good part of the afterlife.

Block books are actually a lot like modern-day supermarket paperbacks: reprinted books about popular subjects made cheaply and sold at low prices.  But as printing costs came down and woodcuts allowed for better illustrations with moveable type, printers moved on and the books were not printed after 1500. Today few European block books are left, which is why the people at Peter Harrington are so excited about just finding a single leaf from one of these books.

Obsolete technology is a favorite subject of mine (I currently own 400 VHS tapes, and the collection keeps growing), so I was fascinated to read about this find. You can also find some material related to xylographica on AbeBooks, including some original leaves being listed for thousands of dollars. Peter Harrington is an AbeBooks seller, so this leaf might end up on AbeBooks soon.

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