Gandhi's Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Readingby Isabel Hofmeyr
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/i>
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 anthologistthese 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 newspapermandistilling stories from numerous sources, circumventing shortages of typeinfluenced 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.
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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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