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Gandhi's Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading

Gandhi's Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading

by Isabel Hofmeyr

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At the same time that Gandhi, as a young lawyer in South Africa, began fashioning the tenets of his political philosophy, he was absorbed by a seemingly unrelated enterprise: creating a newspaper. Gandhi’s Printing Press is an account of how this project, an apparent footnote to a titanic career, shaped the man who would become the world-changing


At the same time that Gandhi, as a young lawyer in South Africa, began fashioning the tenets of his political philosophy, he was absorbed by a seemingly unrelated enterprise: creating a newspaper. Gandhi’s Printing Press is an account of how this project, an apparent footnote to a titanic career, shaped the man who would become the world-changing Mahatma. Pioneering publisher, experimental editor, ethical anthologist—these roles reveal a Gandhi developing the qualities and talents that would later define him.

Isabel Hofmeyr presents a detailed study of Gandhi’s work in South Africa (1893–1914), when he was the some-time proprietor of a printing press and launched the periodical Indian Opinion. The skills Gandhi honed as a newspaperman—distilling stories from numerous sources, circumventing shortages of type—influenced his spare prose style. Operating out of the colonized Indian Ocean world, Gandhi saw firsthand how a global empire depended on the rapid transmission of information over vast distances. He sensed that communication in an industrialized age was becoming calibrated to technological tempos.

But he responded by slowing the pace, experimenting with modes of reading and writing focused on bodily, not mechanical, rhythms. Favoring the use of hand-operated presses, he produced a newspaper to contemplate rather than scan, one more likely to excerpt Thoreau than feature easily glossed headlines. Gandhi’s Printing Press illuminates how the concentration and self-discipline inculcated by slow reading, imbuing the self with knowledge and ethical values, evolved into satyagraha, truth-force, the cornerstone of Gandhi’s revolutionary idea of nonviolent resistance.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hofmeyr, a professor of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, examines Gandhi’s work with words before he became a Mahatma. While he was a young attorney in South Africa at the outset of the 20th century, Gandhi was also “a sometime proprietor” of the press that printed the influential Indian Opinion newspaper, whose production formed, for the burgeoning activist, a crash course in the synthesizing of public opinion, news, and progressive thought. Located on an ashram outside the port city of Durban, the press allowed Gandhi and his cohorts to explore “new kinds of ethical selves,” bringing together as it did “different castes, religions, languages, races, and genders.” In Hofmeyr’s portrait, Gandhi emerges as a surprisingly keen publicist and media strategist, willing to buck the system (e.g., copyright laws) in the service of social change. She also offers a fascinating take on Gandhi’s mode of “contemplative reading,” one characterized by the merging of the text with a receptive mind via “pausing and perseverance,” all with an aim of cumulative progress. Indeed, Gandhi read as he led. This thoughtful account is a compelling preview of the colonial subcontinent’s development, as well as Gandhi’s eventual role as peaceful emancipator of his own country. 5 halftones, 4 maps. (Mar.)
Leah Price
Reconstructing a little-known episode in Gandhi's life, Hofmeyr places surprising new findings about a particular historical figure in the service of a radically new theory of reading. This ambitious and deeply researched book holds lessons for historians, literary theorists, and anyone interested in reading practices.
Ajay Skaria
The connection between Gandhi and the lively Indian Ocean world of small printing presses is something that has almost entirely escaped the attention of historians of South Asia and scholars of print culture so far. Hofmeyr explores this crucial space with rare vigor and sophistication.
Uday Mehta
Gandhi was one of history's most avid experimenters. His most audacious forms of utopianism were often nothing more than simple and ingenious experiments. Hofmeyr tells the remarkable story, with elegance and great learning, of how Gandhi imagined a radically different world simply by attending to the potentialities of the printing press. Very few books on Gandhi capture the minutiae and horizons of his world with such riveting intelligence.
Books & Culture - John Wilson
This slim volume sparks more ideas than are typically generated by a book three times its size.
The Caravan - Tridip Suhrud
Deepens our understanding of Gandhi in South Africa by giving us a history of his International Printing Press...His sparse, unadorned, direct prose had much to do with his early training in writing for Indian Opinion...The book also reflects on various printed forms--the newspaper, the periodical, the pamphlet--and their significance in not just creating a print culture but also in forging a people and sustaining a movement. The most significant part of the work is a theory of reading that Hofmeyr discerns through her examination of Indian Opinion and the Hind Swaraj (1909). Can one actually create modes of writing (and printing) that, while located within the modern realm, can militate against modernity? She shows that Gandhi consciously tried to cultivate a style of writing that required slow, meditative reading; his purpose was to adjust the act of reading to unhurried bodily rhythms not subject to the fast pace that he considered the chief signifier of the industrial age. He even tried to slow down the process of printing by dispensing with the oil machine that ran the press and instead employed manual labour to run it. In this way, Hofmeyr's elucidation of the manner in which a satyagrahi reads illuminates our understanding of Gandhi's modes of writing and discoursing.
Sunday Guardian - Sanjay Sipahimalani
Fascinating...Isabel Hofmeyr discusses and analyses the origin and nature of [periodicals published by Gandhi], focusing on Indian Opinion and Hind Swaraj, and shows how their specific nature reflected Gandhian thought. Of particular interest is Hofmeyr's slant towards Gandhi's views on reading, which resonates with our fragmented, frantic age.
Indian Express - Mallika Sarabhai
The author draws us easily into a history that is varied, interesting and little understood. And in understanding philosophers like Thoreau through Gandhiji, one revisits and is astounded by them once more. The book is a welcome addition to readings on the Mahatma.
Choice - C. A. Colmo
Beginning in Durban, South Africa, in 1898, Mohandas Gandhi became the guiding hand of a printing press and the multilingual newspaper it produced, Indian Opinion. Hofmeyr provides an account at once charming and erudite of Gandhi's vision of printing and the press in relation to Phoenix, the ashram from which the press largely was operated. She also examines the press in relation to the wider satyagraha movement, Gandhi's unique understanding of the quest for truth, and to Gandhi's thinking about empire, nationalism, race, sovereignty, and self-rule. Gandhi first developed his ideas of satyagraha while working with and for the Indian community in South Africa, and much of his thinking was first communicated in the pages of Indian Opinion. Hofmeyr’s careful study of the literary character of the newspaper dispels the idea that the journalistic format was hurried and thus lacking in care. She provides ample evidence that Gandhi saw the paper as comprised of clippings and articles that needed to be read and reread, slowly and thoughtfully. This attempt to integrate many levels of Gandhi's activity will surprise and reward all readers.
Daily Beast - Kapil Komireddi
Hofmeyr has produced a work so exquisitely engaging and so vitally relevant to our age that anyone who reads enough to be concerned about the future of reading should take up this riveting little book.
Library Journal
Hofmeyer (African literature, Univ. of Witwaterstrand, Johannesburg, South Africa) focuses here on Mohandas Gandhi's journalism during his South African years (1893–1914). Central to her argument is Gandhi's advocacy of slow, serious reading of the multilingual newspaper launched by him, Indian Opinion, and the 30 pamphlets published by his organization, The International Printing Press. These publications were instrumental in "propagating the inner meaning of Satyagraha," Gandhi's concept of an insistence on truth. The most notable of these pamphlets was Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule. Gandhi emphasized the active engagement and interaction of the reader with the reading material. Hofmeyer takes a panoramic route with a chapter on the printing cultures on both sides of the Indian Ocean. VERDICT Gandhi's espousal of free reproduction of material and repudiation of copyright—consider this throwaway line: "Gandhi would have been a Wikipedian"—and his theories of slow reading, in which readers ponder and memoriz the text and "labor" for the paper, will provide food for thought in an age of Internet reading. Recommended for collections specializing in Gandhian literature, especially in academic libraries.—Ravi Shenoy, Naperville, IL

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Chapter 4: Binding Pamphlets, Summarizing India

Between 1903 and 1914 the International Printing Press (IPP) published some thirty pamphlets, mostly taken from popular or significant articles in Indian Opinion. Writing in 1913, Gandhi described these as the most important part of the paper: “Our purpose is to publish, from time to time, articles of permanent value so that readers who like to preserve copies can later have them bound into a volume” (CW 12: 360).

So central were these publications that at times the paper was envisaged as serving the pamphlets rather than vice versa. As part of the same downsize, the paper shifted from three to two columns. This change aimed to improve the appearance of the newspaper and make matters more convenient “if the articles had to be published in book form” (CW 12: 360).

The technicalities inherent in this statement remain unclear: it implies either that type could be spared, and the forms left intact until the pamphlet could be issued, or that stereo types of them would be made. The chronic shortage of type, especially in the case of Gujarati, rules out the first option, while the cost of stereotyping, plus the fact that it is never mentioned in the extensive correspondence between Gandhi and the printing personnel at Phoenix, makes the second unlikely. Furthermore, the physical size and appearance of the pamphlets differ from their original form in the newspaper, indicating that they were all composed anew.

Yet even if not in the form set out earlier, the pamphlets did shape the newspaper in other ways. In 1912 Gandhi gave up virtually all advertising for the paper, arguing that the time spent in soliciting advertisements could be better devoted to the production of booklets. It is as if the pamphlets replace the advertisements, the hasty tempos of the market giving way to the slow and more durable reading of the Gandhian “book.”

The pamphlets have become one of the paper’s most enduring legacies. Titles like Hind Swaraj (1909) rose up from the pages of an obscure newspaper to become world famous. Others, like Sarvodaya (1908), Gandhi’s adaptation of Ruskin’s Unto This Last, and his abridged account of Socrates’s defense, The Story of a Soldier of Truth (1908), feature centrally in discussions of Gandhian ideas.

Meet the Author

Isabel Hofmeyr is Professor of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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