Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Masters of the Word

How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet

by William J. Bernstein

From the author of A Splendid Exchange comes a remarkable history of media—from the creation of the alphabet through the invention of the Internet—and how it has shaped human society over millennia.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 432
  • Publication Date July 08, 2014
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2139-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 448
  • Publication Date April 02, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2138-7
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $27.50

About The Book

In Masters of the Word, William J. Bernstein, the celebrated author of A Splendid Exchange, chronicles the history of media, starting with the origin of writing thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. The revolutionary tool gave rise to the world’s empires and the birth of drama and democracy. But it’s not just new communication technologies that have changed the world—it’s access to them. Vernacular bibles gave rise to religious dissent, but it was only when the combination of cheaper paper and Gutenberg’s printing press drove down the cost of books by 97 percent that the fuse of Reformation was lit. The Industrial Revolution allowed information to move faster and farther than ever before, though it concentrated power and enabled totalitarian governments. With the twenty-first century boom of the mobile Internet, control of media has again spread, and the world is both more connected and freer than ever before. An utterly captivating, enlightening book, Masters of the Word will change the way you look at technology, human history, and power.


“In Masters of the Word, a master storyteller, synthesizer, and historian shows us how the power of the word has toppled tyrants. I love reading what Bernstein writes.” —Ed Tower, professor of economics, Duke University

“Fascinating . . . an engaging mix of theory, fact and enlightenment from across the millennia that wears its rich scholarship lightly.” —Peter Preston, The Guardian (UK)

“This sweeping, although selective, historical narrative by award-winning financial historian Bernstein elucidates in highly readable fashion the role of ‘media’—in which he includes advances from ancient alphabets to movable type to twenty-first-century technology—in shaping civilization and determining democratic versus despotic tendencies. Bernstein’s thesis that ‘power accruesto the literate’ should not be taken simplistically; his larger arguments are learned and elegantly made. . . . His occasional invocation of modern phenomena in a non modern context lend charm and clarity to what might have otherwise been dauntingly erudite. Instead, Bernstein offers an accessible, quite enjoyable, and highly informative read that will hold surprises even for those familiar with some of the history he covers.” —Mark Levine, Booklist

“Fascinating.” —Irish Examiner

“[Bernstein] enables us to see what remains the same, even as much has changed: Henry VIII had William Tyndale burned at the stake for making the Bible available in English; today, dictators and their henchmen beat up and murder protestors by the hundreds, likewise (simply put) to maintain control of information.” —Library Journal, “Editors’ Picks”

“[Bernstein’s] narrative is succinct and extremely well sourced. . . . [He] reminds us of a number of technologies whose changed roles are less widely chronicled in conventional histories of the media.” —Irish Times

Masters of the Word takes you on a fascinating trip, from the invention of writing to the creation of the world-wide Web. Bernstein masterfully describes not just the inventions and the inventors that created modern media, but the forces underlying their impact. Riveting and thoroughly researched, it brims with interesting ideas and astonishing connections.” —Phil Lapsley, author of Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell


A Finalist for the Frances Fuller Victor Award for General Nonfiction
A Library Journal Editors’ Pick


Like all revolutionary technologies, the printing press outraged practitioners of the crafts it displaced—in this case, scribes whose hopelessly uneconomical manuscripts suddenly became expensive curiosities. One scribal victim, Filippo de Strata, a Benedictine monk living on the Venetian island of Murano, implored the doge to punish the printers, for

They shamelessly print, at negligible cost, material which may, alas, inflame impressionable youths, while a true writer dies of hunger [and] a young girl reads Ovid to learn sinfulness. . . . Writing indeed, which brings gold for us, should be respected and held to be nobler than all goods, unless she has suffered degradation in the brothel of the printing presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a harlot in print.

Not for the last time did the democratization of a previously rare communication skill provoke proclamations of doom among a privileged professional class.