Where would we be without Gutenberg?

There is a great body of work exploring the impact classics have on current popular culture. One of my favorite examples of this is the original Willie Wonka film with Gene Wilder. The script is one classic reference after another. It’s part of what makes such a low-budget promotional film for a candy company, a film that is often considered a classic, in and of itself.  It got me thinking about classics in a different light. Not just their impact on today’s popular culture but the impact they had in their own time. Classics AS popular culture.

Recently I asked ASU instructor, Scott Boras, an expert in Popular Culture, if there was any research on the classics as pop culture artifacts of their time. Scott shared with me that part of the working definition of popular culture was that there needed to be an element of mass consumption. But what defines mass consumption? Was Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer a pop culture artifact of its time? Would Shakespeare’s plays be considered popular culture of their time? It’s an interesting question.

For something to be mass consumed it must be mass-produced. In other words, large quantities of uniform products must be created. Since so much of popular culture is ideas then it would make sense that the printing press is probably one of the most important contributors to the creation of popular culture. The printing press allows us to replicate words and pictures-arts and humanities-making them accessible to those who would not otherwise be able to afford to have books copied by hand.

Copied by hand. We don’t think much about the world before the printing press. Recently, I was reminded of its import as the final pages of the St. John’s Bible were completed after 15 years. Yes you read that correctly 15 years. Imagine what your classroom library would look like if you had to hand copy and illustrate each of the books. How many books would be there?

I’m certain we’ve all taken history. The abstract idea of the importance of Gutenberg’s invention has been discussed; but I doubt it really registered in our minds why it so changed the world. This week I finally GOT it. This week I’ve come to understand; and because I understand its got me looking at today’s pop culture artifacts through a different filter. It’s not only about what is left over after what is considered art. It’s also about what the masses have access to.

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