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  • Paradigms Lost: The Life and Death of the Printed Word
  • Steven Escar Smith
Paradigms Lost: The Life and Death of the Printed Word. By William Sonn . Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2006. iv, 393 pp. $35.00 (paper). ISBN 0-8108-5262-4.

Paradigms Lost: The Life and Death of the Printed Word begins with the premise that technological changes in the duplication and dissemination of printed material have in turn led to significant social and economic changes in the world at large. This is not a new thesis; it has been plied quite well by many others. This effort is distinct because it spends so much time on contemporary matters—the technology, industry, and organization of mid- to late-twentieth-century printing and publishing. The book's author, William Sonn, pinpoints the invention of moveable type in the West in the 1400s, the transition from the hand press to the machine press around 1800, advances in photographic processes and offset lithography in the 1880s, and finally the development and proliferation of the computer in the mid-twentieth century as the key points in his story. He also gives some attention, though much more briefly, to the development of the Internet as a fifth transition point. In addition to examining the past, Sonn attempts a tentative foreshadowing of the future. [End Page 199]

The author is not an academic. Sonn brings to his work a background in the business and communications industry as a former CEO of Forte Information Resources and now a principal in Business Development Communications. The strength of the book comes from this background. His professional experience in the field has given him a unique perch from which to observe changes in the printing and graphic communication industries over the last several decades. The opening chapter, for example, describes the experience of Louis Felicio, a retired repairman of hot metal typecasting and composing machines, while a guest at a printing trade show in the early 1990s. The computers and other gadgets on display are nearly as foreign to Mr. Felicio as perhaps a typewriter would be to a late medieval scribe—perhaps more so. As an illustration of the contrast between Mr. Felicio's world of clanking and hissing behemoth machines and the products on display at the trade show, Sonn observes: "Printers, Lou finds out, are no longer compositors. The only printers in the slide show he watches are mute computer accessories, filled with toner and run by electricity" (3). Sonn is at his best at such moments. His descriptions of this and other contemporary or near-contemporary changes in the printing industry make his book a valuable documentary record. Print culture studies are largely rooted in the early modern period. As a result, we know a lot more about the inner workings of Isaac Jaggard's printshop than the production facility for Macmillan's in the 1960s or the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s. With very few exceptions, the twentieth century has received extremely short shrift—perhaps because it is still too close and the technology so much more complex. Sonn's work is thus one of a very few to give us a view of the more recent printing business and its culture and practices.

Let the reader be warned, however—the early part of the book in particular is plagued by inaccuracies and distortions. Parchment, for example, is made from animal skin, not "mashed plant fibers" (19). The book is also theoretically naive, being on the whole too deterministic and positivistic. A better grounding in the work of such scholars as Henri-Jean Martin, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Robert Darnton, Anthony Grafton, and Adrian Johns would have brought a more balanced theoretical underpinning. It is curious that Marshall McLuhan, perhaps the twentieth century's leading theoretician of print and media studies, is not in evidenceat all.

A word about the physical production of this book. The Scarecrow Press has come a long way over the last decade or so where aesthetics are concerned.The last time I checked, its products were almost exclusively generated from camera-ready copy with little or no creativity or sensitivity in matters of layout. Camera-ready copy might...


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pp. 199-200
Launched on MUSE
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