Margaret Leslie Davis
The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book's Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey
Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, Australia, 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1760529611

The Lost Gutenberg

 

 "The focus here is very much on the Bible as a landmark book in the history of printing rather than its spiritual content (although for some of the owners, including Doheny, that was certainly part of its attraction) and, as such, its comes complete with intricate details of how it was printed (some of which were only discovered when this particular Bible was subject to testing using a process known as proton-induced X-ray emission which essentially means firing a proton beam at it)."

The fascinating story of one Bible's 500 year journey, The Lost Gutenberg tells the story of the Gutenberg Number 45, one of only 49 Gutenbergs still in existence.

Number 45 - which is just the Old Testament - was printed sometime before 15th August, 1456 (the unusual dating is due to a note inscribed in pencil inside the Bible's cover) and is attributed to the father of printing in the Western world, Johann Gutenberg, amd his worshop in Mainz, Germany. This copy is the only one which has been owned by a woman - Estelle Doheny, second wife of US oil tycoon Edward Doheny - and it's her story that makes up the bulk of the book.

Doheny, who was based in LA, acquired the book at the age of 75 in 1950 after a 40 year chase and Davis traces Doheny's many disappointments and setbacks in her quest for the book. Sadly she also recounts what happened to the Bible after Doheny's death and how, left to a Catholic St John's Seminary library in Camarillo, California along with the rest of her collection, it was eventually sold off.

But it's not just Doheny's story - in these pages we also encounter its previous owners including the first known owner, Irish-born Archibald Acheson, the third Earl of Gosford, who bought the book in 1836 as well as British aristocrat and bibliophile Lord William Tyssen-Amherst and Charles William Dyson Perrins, of the Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce empire. 

The focus here is very much on the Bible as a landmark book in the history of printing rather than its spiritual content (although for some of the owners, including Doheny, that was certainly part of its attraction) and, as such, its comes complete with intricate details of how it was printed (some of which were only discovered when this particular Bible was subject to testing using a process known as proton-induced X-ray emission which essentially means firing a proton beam at it).

The book finishes by bringing the Bible's location up-to-date following its purchase by Tokyo company Maruzen Co Ltd for $US5.4 million in 1987, a price which is 75 times what Doheny paid for it. The company, which bought the Bible to celebrate its 120th anniversary, initially put the Bible on public display - among those who visit is the man who is now Emperor of Japan, Naruhito.

It subsequently ends up at Keio University and there has gone through a new process, being uploaded onto the internet for all in the world to see it (you'll find it here - http://dcollections.lib.keio.ac.jp/en/gutenberg).

Davis describes the story of "Number 45" as a a "modern parable about the volatility of fate and fortune".

"Looked at one way, the story of Number 45 is strewn with revolution, betrayal and loss," she writes a few pages earlier. "But seen from something more akin to the book's own point of view, it's a study in the way a single significant object provoked responses that carried it into the orbits of unlikely risk-takers and innovators through time...In the same way that Gutenberg's technology no doubt grew from accidents and chance intersections of ideas, Number 45 has continued to yield new insights through unexpected and serendipitous meetings triggered by the people in its owners' sphere."

Her book tells the story of how that has happened.