My son texted me after flying back to his home after Christmas, “Flying out of Atlanta at night makes you think Thomas Edison may be the most influential man in history.” This is a fairly astute observation. A few years ago I read a biography of “the Wizard of Menlo Park” entitled The Man Who Invented the 20th Century. It demonstrated just how impactful Edison’s contributions are. It was Edison’s genius that gave us, among other things, recorded sound, and, more significantly, electric light. Imagine life without these things.
While Edison’s inventions changed the world, I disagree that he was history’s most influential inventor. That designation has to go to a 15th century German named Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg developed moveable type print and the printing press. Edison brought the world electric light. Gutenberg brought the world enlightenment.
Before the printing press, books were hand copied. This made them both extremely rare and expensive. Literacy was generally reserved for the wealthy and powerful, leaving the rest of the world subject to the tyranny of an elite few. When books were mass produced through printing and common people began to read, democratic principles spread. It was no coincidence, one historian observed, that 1776 America was “the most broadly literate place in human history.” The American Revolution limited government and elevated the rights of the individual. Ultimately we have Gutenberg to thank for our freedom.
It was also no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation immediately followed the invention of the printing press. The Bible was the first book Gutenberg produced with his moveable type. As the Scriptures began to be circulated, men began to recognize the error of their superstitions and of the medieval church, and they began to understand better the true nature of the Christian religion. God used Gutenberg’s invention to help bring a wide-spread spiritual awakening.
Gutenberg’s invention helped bring freedom and faith to the western world, but there is a tragic irony unfolding today. New inventions are now beginning to return us to a dark age.
In his seminal book on the impact of modern media, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of freedom. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”
Our preoccupation with cell phones, iPads, and binge-watching on Netflix is bringing Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” upon us. Even with e-books available, reading a book is now a rare exercise. Attention spans are shortened. The ability to follow a reasoned argument has become stunted. Conversation is a lost art. What was once common knowledge about such things as history and logic is now uncommon. While technologically advanced, we are becoming intellectually and spiritually retarded.
The apostle Paul wrote Timothy from a Roman prison, “The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.” He requested clothing to keep him warm, and two things to read to strengthen him spiritually and intellectually.
Many people make New Year’s resolutions. Here’s one: Follow Paul’s example and read a book. Obviously, not all books are of equal value (many have no value), but read a good book. Last year, did you read even one? How about that book unique in its importance? How long has it been since you read the Bible in its entirety? Perhaps never. Heed the admonition Paul urged upon young Timothy regarding the Scripture, “give attendance to reading.”
Redeem some time. Put aside your cell phone. Forget Facebook. Turn off the television set. Read a book.