Benjamin Franklin was, in his own words, “the youngest son of the youngest son for five Generations back.” Born to a Boston candlemaker who had emigrated from Ecton, England, Franklin became an American printer of national significance: the editor and publisher, at 23, of what became his nation’s most important newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. An internationally lauded scientist of electricity, he broke through the frosty anteroom of London’s Royal Society—a colonial autodidact!—to become a celebrated fellow. A prolific humorist, he invented a tradition of wry, plain-speaking wit (among his pseudonyms: Margaret Aftercast and Ephraim Censorious).

He was the author of one of the only pre-19th-century American best sellers still read today (his Autobiography). A Pennsylvanian politician and civic reformer of tireless energy. Founder of the Junto, a self-improvement society; of the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first subscription library in North America; of the American Philosophical Society; of the Union Fire Company; of the University of Pennsylvania. The author of essays on phonetic alphabets, demography, paper currency. A leader of resistance to the 1765 Stamp Act, which imposed taxes on colonial legal documents and printed materials, and, ultimately, to British colonial rule of America. Grand master of the Masons, Pennsylvania. The deputy postmaster general of North America and, eventually, postmaster general of the United States.

He was the ambassador to France. A famous Londoner; a famous Parisian; a famous Pennsylvanian. A celebrity in a time when that concept was only emerging. (Guests at his Fourth of July celebration in Paris, in 1778, stole cutlery as souvenirs.) One of the founding fathers who drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence. The inventor of the Franklin wood-burning stove, the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, a chair that converted into a stepladder, the glass armonica, a new kind of street lamp (with a funnel dispersing the smoke), a rocking chair with a fan, swimming fins, a flexible urinary catheter and a “long arm” for removing objects from high shelves.

The Book-Makers: A History of the Book in Eighteen Lives

From Wynkyn de Worde’s printing of 15th-century bestsellers to Nancy Cunard’s avant-garde pamphlets produced on her small press in Normandy, this is a celebration of the book with the people put back in.

In a 1785 letter to a friend, Franklin sketched the bifocal lenses he invented to help him read fine print without switching between two pairs of glasses.
In a 1785 letter to a friend, Franklin sketched the bifocal lenses he invented to help him read fine print without switching between two pairs of glasses. Library of Congress

Do you feel small? Don’t feel small. Franklin knew his faults as much as he cherished his fame: the absent husband away for his wife’s death; the man prone to jettisoning friends who ceased to be useful (former friend John Collins, too often drunk, was sent off to Barbados with a West India captain to work as a tutor: “I never heard of him after,” Franklin recalled); the public moralizer who refused to name the mother of his illegitimate son; the life punctuated by furious arguments and the obsession with public credit and reputation. And—in ways that are becoming increasingly apparent at the time of writing—a man who was actively complicit in the slave trade.

President John Adams hailed Franklin’s benefaction “to his country and mankind,” but described also his personal hypocrisy and vanity: “He has a passion for reputation and fame, as strong as you can imagine, and his time and thoughts are chiefly employed to obtain it.”

The medium Franklin moved in was ink: He waded in it, up to his neck. The printing trade was his start, the profession that made him. While Franklin grew up at a time when printing in colonial America was not yet established, the trade was coiled like a spring, and his timing was right; to a considerable extent, Franklin released it. The first printing press in the British colonies was not established until 1638, when locksmith Stephen Daye sailed from Cambridge, England, to Massachusetts, carrying a press in pieces. In 1722, when Franklin was 16, there were just four cities in Britain’s North American colonies with presses, and only eight printing shops in all: five in Boston and one each in Philadelphia, New York, and New London, Connecticut. The Boston News-Letter started its publication in 1704; it was the only newspaper in the colonies for the next 15 years.

For Franklin, it starts early. In 1717, having alarmed his Puritan father with talk of a life on the seas, 12-year-old Franklin is set up as an apprentice to his elder brother, James, a printer. His brother had served his own apprenticeship in London and returned to Boston to found and edit the New-England Courant, the fourth paper in the colonies (and the third in Boston). As apprentice, Benjamin Franklin does the grunt work—“I was employed to carry the papers through the streets to the customers”—but he is ambitious, and he’s resentful of being held in check by an elder brother. He writes pseudonymous letters under the name of Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow who mocks aspects of colonial life. Franklin’s letters are a hit; when it’s known that Silence is widowed, men write in with proposals of marriage.

Franklin, who left school at 10, has a powerfully “bookish inclination,” as he would later put it. He feeds off scraps in his father’s “little library” and then whatever volumes he can find. “Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted.” His youthful language and conception of the world are forged by Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe, Cotton Mather and John Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives—that work of Greek and Roman biographies (such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar) conveying, to the young Franklin, the potential scope of a life.

In 1723, Franklin, squirming under his brother’s rule, flees the Boston print shop. He is illegally breaking the terms of his apprenticeship: He is on the run. Arriving disheveled and almost penniless in Philadelphia on October 6, he is bewildered and alone but seized also by the symbolism of a new start in this new place, Pennsylvania Colony having been founded just over 40 years before by William Penn. “I walked up the street, gazing about, till near the market house I met a boy with bread.” His future wife, Deborah, happens to see the down-at-heel 17-year-old and thinks he has “a most awkward ridiculous appearance.” Franklin—“forgetting Boston as much as I could”—finds printing work with English-born Samuel Keimer, a patchy printer who’d spent time in London’s Fleet Prison for debt before trying to start again in Philadelphia. Keimer is a bad poet, too, with a habit of composing verse directly in type, without recourse to pen and paper.

Franklin quickly decides that Keimer (“slovenly to extreme dirtiness” and an “odd fish”) knows “nothing of presswork”—that is, of working the press, in contrast to composing or ordering the metal type. Keimer’s hardware consists, in Franklin’s words, “of an old shattered press and one small, worn-out fount of English.” (“English” is a type size, the equivalent of 14 points on your computer, and, Franklin probably thought, unhelpfully large. “Font,” or occasionally “fount,” from the French fondre, to melt or cast, means a complete set of type, and the design it represents.)

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Young Franklin at the Press, an 1876 oil painting by Enoch Wood Perry Jr. By age 23, Franklin was printing and writing for the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Young Franklin at the Press, an 1876 oil painting by Enoch Wood Perry Jr. By age 23, Franklin was printing and writing for the Pennsylvania Gazette. Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Photo: Tom Loonan

Keimer asks Franklin to finish printing an elegy on a recently deceased young poet and printer’s assistant. This is the first work that Franklin prints in Philadelphia: not a book, but a fragile single leaf on the death of a young man with the impossibly poetic name of Aquila Rose. (Aquila is Latin for “eagle.”) All known copies disappear by the early 19th century until 200 years later, when a book dealer finds a sheet in a scrapbook and sells it in 2017 to the University of Pennsylvania, where it now resides.

A pattern forms that will be repeated in Franklin’s early career. He vaults past the lesser talents he sees around him—he finds the two established Philadelphia printers “wretched,” Keimer “a mere compositor” and Andrew Bradford “very illiterate”—and catches the eyes of powerful men. Sir William Keith, governor of Pennsylvania, sees a young man of promising parts, and on his urging, Franklin sails to London to gain a printer’s education.

He arrives in London on December 24, 1724, to find Keith has failed to send the letters of support he promised. (“He wished to please everybody, and, having little to give, he gave expectations,” Franklin will later write of his would-be patron.)

Forced on by his ceaseless drive, and managing to hold at bay some if not all calls to the taverns, playhouses and brothels, Franklin secures work at two major London printers, where he learns quickly. At the print shop of Samuel Palmer, he sets the type for the third edition of William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated, an early work of Deism that argues ethics can be implied from the natural world and need not depend on revealed religion.

But Franklin feels he could do better, and he writes “a little metaphysical piece” titled “A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain,” arguing for the incompatibility of an omnipotent God and human free will. The pamphlet carries no note of author or place of publication. It’s bad: Palmer thinks it “abominable.” Franklin quickly regrets it, burning the copies he can find.

Franklin is being shaped by everything bookish. He borrows secondhand volumes about medicine and religion from “one Wilcox, a bookseller, whose shop was at the next door,” at the sign of the Green Dragon. He moves from Palmer’s print shop to John Watts’: a more prestigious establishment that doesn’t share the printing of single works with other printers. This means, as book historian Hazel Wilkinson notes, that a voracious autodidact like Franklin can read whole works as he prints them, peering closely at the copy and setting type.

Printing Press
This printing press used by Benjamin Franklin in John Watts’ London shop in 1726 was later displayed at the National Museum of American History. Hugh Talman / NMAH

In the beer-soaked world of the printing apprentice in 18th-century London, Franklin is the abstemious “Water-American”: “My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six o’clock, and another when he had done his day’s work.” Franklin thinks this a “detestable custom” and proposes what he calls “some reasonable alterations in their chapel [printing house] laws.” It’s easy to imagine how these rational proposals sound to the ears of Franklin’s fellow apprentices: He urges his peers to leave off their breakfast of “beer and bread and cheese” and to instead eat “hot water-gruel, sprinkled with pepper.” No, thank you!

Franklin, now full of what London can offer, his head eternally generating new schemes (like the establishment, rather implausibly, of a swimming school), sails back to Philadelphia, and within two years, in 1728, he sets up his own print shop in partnership with Hugh Meredith, in a narrow brick house on Market Street. Type arrives from London. Orders trickle and then flow. Three-quarters of William Sewel’s History of the Quakers were printed by Keimer, but Franklin printed the remaining 178 pages plus the title page for each copy. Understanding he has to conspicuously surpass (to the point of humiliating) his rival, Franklin throws everything he has at the printing of his sheets of Sewel’s History. Keimer has been inching his way through printing this book for three years. Franklin composes a sheet a day—which means four large pages—as Meredith works the press.

Franklin, realizing that building “character and credit” is crucial, not only works with irresistible force; he also makes sure his neighbors see this industry. He wears plain clothes and pushes a wheelbarrow full of paper through the streets to convey the impression of honest labor. He wants to be a walking emblem of industry. “I see him still at work when I go home from club,” an eminent neighbor says, “and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed.” Virtue is crucial, for Franklin, but so is the chatter about virtue.

The personalities who dominate the early years of Franklin’s printing are soon pushed to the fringes and finally expelled. His partner Hugh Meredith—in Franklin’s judgment, “no compositor, a poor pressman, and seldom sober”—agrees to leave the business for life as a farmer in North Carolina. Franklin pays him £30 and a new saddle. Through drive, intelligence, determination and a variety of low cunning, Franklin is established as the major printer in Philadelphia.

It’s 1730. Franklin is 24. His ambitions can now unfold.

The history of the book is typically organized around big volumes. Books like Johannes Gutenberg’s 1450s Bible, the earliest full-scale work printed from movable metal type on Royal paper measuring 24 by 17 inches per leaf; or the Biblia Polyglotta, printed at Christopher Plantin’s shop in Antwerp, Belgium, between 1568 and 1572, in eight folio volumes, with parallel texts in Hebrew, Greek, Syriac and Aramaic, and translations and commentary in Latin, a wonder of mise-en-page; or the great 17-volume statement of Enlightenment thought, the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert; or the 435 hand-colored, life-size prints in John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

These titles are deeply unrepresentative of the texts that typically emerged from binders’ offices and printing chapels and that filled the stalls of booksellers and the pockets of readers. The flip side is the world of jobbing printing: the production of cheap, everyday, usually ephemeral texts, the torrent of non-book print that circulated in the world starting in the 1450s. And it still does today. Look around you: the takeaway menu; the supermarket receipt. Packaging is very easily the largest consumer of print in 2024.

Benjamin Franklin was sustained by just this kind of printing work. Since it was cheaper to import large books from London, American printing before about 1740 tended to concentrate on small books, pamphlets, government printing, sermons and ephemera. Franklin had his moments with big volumes. Most notable was his 1744 publication of Cicero’s Cato Major, a 44 B.C. essay on aging and death, translated by James Logan. Seventy-three copies survive today of a print run of 1,000, and it’s often held up with admiration as the best example of colonial printing: printed in Caslon type in black and red on either American-milled or Genoese paper, depending on the copy. Logan’s translation had been circulating in manuscript some years before, and Franklin actively pursued it—rightly perceiving the volume not as a source of financial profit (it wasn’t) but a means to acquire cultural capital in powerful, learned circles.

Elegy for Aquila Rose and Poor Richard's Almanack
Left, Elegy for Aquila Rose, a tribute to a poet, was the first work printed by Franklin in Pennsylvania. Right, a page from the 1736 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack. The annual book was as eclectic as Franklin’s own mind, filled with weather predictions, aphorisms, puzzles and even astrological information. Curtis Collection of Franklin Imprints / Kislak Center for Special Collections / Univ. of Pennsylvania Libraries; Curtis Coll. of Franklin Imprints / Kislak Center for Special Coll. / Univ. of Penn. Libraries. Photo: Eric Sucar / Univ. of Penn.

Two years earlier, in 1742, Franklin had begun printing Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel about 15-year-old maidservant Pamela Andrews and her attempts to fend off the unwanted advances of her wealthy employer, the enigmatically titled “Mr. B.” Pamela was a huge hit in London, but it took Franklin more than two years to complete. He sold it unstitched—folded, in sheets—for 6 shillings. But by the time Franklin’s edition was ready, the market was awash with cheap imported copies. The lesson he learned—and Franklin was all about lessons learned—was to avoid heavy investment in a single title.

Jobbing work meant printing many copies quickly, moving rapidly from order to order with no thought to posterity. Most of these items lack an imprint and were only ascribed to Franklin, or Franklin and Hall (that is, David Hall, Franklin’s business partner starting around 1748), by the meticulous study of account books and ledgers by Franklin’s pre-eminent bibliographer, C. William Miller. Jobbing commissions were frequent and not labor-intensive. In 1742, Franklin repeatedly suspended work on Pamela to print lottery tickets, licenses for peddlers and public houses, sheriff’s warrants, naval certificates, soap wrappers, medical cures, bookplates for libraries, 1,000 hat bills, Irish Society tickets, and thousands of advertisements.

If we could walk down Second Street, in Philadelphia, in the spring of 1757, past the former offices of Franklin’s rival Andrew Bradford, we might see one of the playbills Franklin and Hall printed for the visiting London Theater Company. (Of 4,300 copies, only two are known to survive today.) Or if in 1761 we turned up Market Street, we might notice, pasted on a lamppost or passing between hands, a copy of instructions for operating a watch printed by Franklin and Hall. One of the features of print that is most often invoked is its capacity to endure, but this was a world of transient texts: of print read, then dropped, or lost, or used to light pipes, or to stop mustard pots, or to wrap pies. Or, with modern toilet paper still awaiting its great movement—it came in 1857—as what the 17th-century English poet Alexander Brome referred to as “bum fodder.”

Franklin concentrated his attention on three kinds of printed text whose import and profit far exceeded Cicero’s Cato Major or Richardson’s Pamela. The first was paper money. Franklin printed money for the governments of Pennsylvania (from 1729 to 1764), New Jersey (1728-46) and Delaware (1734-60), producing nearly 2,500,000 individual paper bills, just a handful of which survive today in public collections.

Paper money was a polarizing issue—farmers and tradesmen liked it; the rich did not—and Franklin contributed to the political controversy by advocating for it in A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency. Franklin also had some clever ideas about the printing process, and from 1739, the verso of his bills carried the impression of leaves to prevent counterfeits: Franklin placed a leaf on a piece of wet fabric and pressed this into smooth plaster, and used this negative impression as the mold for melted metal type. He had a capacity to see what was not there, and then to find it, or invent it. He devised and built a copper-plate press—“the first that had been seen in the country,” he later boasted—to produce these engravings.

A 20-shilling Pennsylvania bill Franklin printed in 1739 includes anti-counterfeit measures he developed, including watermarks and blue threads, along with a warning: “To counterfeit is death.”
A 20-shilling Pennsylvania bill Franklin printed in 1739 includes anti-counterfeit measures he developed, including watermarks and blue threads, along with a warning: “To counterfeit is death.” Department of Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame
Copies of the Pennsylvania Gazette from 1736. Along with contributing articles, Franklin used the paper to announce his projects, including his kite experiment and Poor Richard’s Almanack.
Copies of the Pennsylvania Gazette from 1736. Along with contributing articles, Franklin used the paper to announce his projects, including his kite experiment and Poor Richard’s Almanack. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts / University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Photo: Eric Sugar / University of Pennsylvania

Franklin’s second crucial kind of non-book printing was his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette became the most popular paper in the colonies. The sum of 10 shillings bought you a year’s subscription—that’s about 2 pence for every weekly four-page issue—and subscribers grew from a feeble 90 to more than 1,500 in 1748. What is a newspaper at this moment in history? And what qualities did Franklin’s possess that marked it out for success? Franklin’s paper, like most other colonial newspapers, was printed on both sides of one small folio sheet, but it was a better object. As Franklin himself wrote, “Our first papers made a quite different appearance from any before in the province; a better type”—a mix of English, pica and long primer—“and better printed.”

But it was the quality of Franklin’s writing, too, that set the Gazette apart—“one of the first good effects of my having learnt a little to scribble.” Like other papers, Franklin’s Gazette included reports from foreign newspapers, but Franklin increased the local and colonial content, cut tiresome encyclopedia recyclings, and added instead a series of essays, either reprinted from English journals (the London Journal, Spectator or Tatler), or written by Franklin’s friends or Franklin himself. There were more advertisements. In a way that seems unimaginable amid the information overload of the 21st century, news was often thin on the ground—if the Delaware River froze over and ships didn’t come in, the news was stuck in the ice, too—and Franklin became adept at improvising content, often through the composition of original writing or (greatest of all literary genres) fake reader letters.

The effect was to produce a set of juxtapositions that at first might seem unstable: European and domestic news next to excerpts from Xenophon or The Morals of Confucius; bawdy anecdotes written by Franklin and inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, next to letters from readers, many written by Franklin under pseudonyms; an important interview with Andrew Hamilton, speaker of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, in 1733, alongside mock news that crashes through our modern sense of acceptable limits but that proved hugely popular in its time. (“And sometime last week, we are informed, that one Piles a Fidler, with his wife, were overset in a canoe near Newtown Creek. The good man, ’tis said, prudently secured his fiddle, and let his wife go to the bottom.”) His paper ran the first American political cartoon in 1754 as part of an editorial titled “The Disunited State,” as well as jokes, satirical sketches, mocking accounts of the clergy, obituaries (Franklin’s inclusions did much to establish and popularize the form) and essays motivated by a growing sense of outrage at English rule (the dire conditions of English prisons, and the suffering endured by the Irish as a result of “their griping avaricious landlords”).

Even as Franklin was transforming the printing and publishing industries, he invented the Franklin stove, which provided more heat and less smoke than an open fireplace.  Library of Congress
glass armonica
Franklin also invented the glass armonica, a unique musical instrument made up of nested glass bowls spinning around an iron rod. Library of Congress

In his Autobiography, Franklin wrote, “I considered my newspaper, also, as another means of communicating instruction,” and this commitment played out in essays that often originated in his autodidacts’ club, the Junto. The Gazette was a newspaper, and Franklin an editor, increasingly convinced of the importance of the press as a means for what he called “Zeal for the Publick Good.” This meant the cultivation of informed, civic-minded leaders and represented a commitment that ultimately found expression in Franklin’s successful advocacy of American independence.

But one topic among the Gazette’s noisy miscellanies is disturbing, if not unexpected, for a modern reader. This is the presence of advertisements for slaves, and Franklin’s role in these as a kind of broker. Recent work by historian Jordan E. Taylor has done much to uncover the intimate links between 18th-century American newspapers and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, articulated through both notices about runaway slaves, and—Taylor’s particular focus—through thousands of advertisements for slaves for sale that “empowered enslavers and strengthened the slave system.” In the 37 years that Franklin published the Gazette, his newspaper printed at least 277 advertisements offering at least 308 slaves for sale. (And these are conservative counts.)

Gazette ads offer rewards for returning runaways—an enslaved Bermudan and an Irish indentured servant. Franklin never spoke out against slavery until after American independence.

In the 1740s in particular, Franklin’s Gazette was the crucial site for these advertisements. On March 10, 1743, the Gazette ran an advertisement for “A Negro man 22 years of age, of uncommon strength and activity.” (Advertisements typically denude slaves of anything as individuating as character and use instead stark identity—categories such as wench, woman, lad, boy, fellow, man, girl or child, with few details save age, health, sex and skills.) The advertisement instructed: “Any person that wants such a one may see him by enquiring of the printer hereof.” That was the clause that typically signed off these advertisements, and it implicates absolutely the newspaper printer in this slave-trade economy. Franklin is here the middleman, linking buyers and sellers and oiling the wheels of a slave economy, the advertisements serving as informal proxies for the auction or merchant firm. In an “enquire of the printer” advertisement in the Gazette for 1733, Franklin offered a “very likely Negro woman aged about 30 years” with a son “aged about 6 years, who … will be sold with his mother, or by himself, as the buyer pleases.”

Franklin’s brother James had also advertised slaves in his New-England Courant. Learning from his brother’s example, Franklin was the first printer outside Boston to broker slaves regularly through his newspaper, and his commercial success (but moral failure) catalyzed similar advertisements in newspapers in New York City, Baltimore and Providence, Rhode Island. Franklin later in life was known as a vocal and influential abolitionist, but as Taylor notes, “For most of the 18th century, to be a newspaper printer was to be a slave trader.”

Yet another publication at the heart of Franklin’s success was his Poor Richard series of almanacs. In publishing almanacs, Franklin was following the scent of the best seller. Almanacs compressed the world into miniature form. They were cheap, small, eminently portable books that provided readers with monthly calendars; astrological and meteorological prognostications; details of fairs and journeys between towns; chronologies of history; medical advice; a “zodiacal body” anatomizing the influence of the planets on parts of the body; and more. Thomas Nashe in 1596 said selling almanacs was “readier money than ale and cakes.”

The first edition of Franklin’s Poor Richard was printed in 1732; it sold for 5 pence a copy—or 3 shillings and 6 pence for a dozen—and contained, as the title page declares, “The Lunations, Eclipses, Judgment of the Weather, Spring Tides, Planets Motions & mutual Aspects, Sun and Moon’s Rising and Setting, Length of Days, Time of High Water, Fairs, Courts, and observable Days.” It was a huge commercial hit—“vending annually near ten thousand,” according to Franklin, in a colony with a 1730s population of around 50,000, with “scarce any neighborhood in the province being without it.” The almanac was a perfect form for Franklin, with an inclusive sweep of contents and a particularly Franklinian combination of big sales with plain-talking humility.

The Broad Street statue shows Franklin young and strong, with enlarged hands and feet, a departure from his usual image as an elder statesman.
The Broad Street statue shows Franklin young and strong, with enlarged hands and feet, a departure from his usual image as an elder statesman. Christopher Leaman

Franklin used the cheapest of books to educate a vast reading public toward his idea of virtue. In the 26th and final edition of Poor Richard, for 1758, Franklin gathered about 100 aphorisms and wove them into the speech of “Father Abraham” (“a plain clean old man, with white locks”). This piece of writing, variously known as “Father Abraham’s Speech,” “The Way to Wealth” or “La Science du Bonhomme Richard,” is Franklin’s most widely reprinted text. Franklin himself was proudly aware of its influence. In the Autobiography, he wrote: “The piece, being universally approved, was copied in all the newspapers of the Continent; reprinted in Britain on a broadside, to be stuck up in houses; two translations were made of it in French, and great numbers bought by the clergy and gentry, to distribute gratis among their poor parishioners and tenants.”

In it, Franklin reports how he overheard one Father Abraham (invented by Franklin) dispensing wisdom he had gathered from reading Poor Richard almanacs (written by Franklin):

Sloth, by bringing on diseases, absolutely shortens life. ‘Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright,’ as Poor Richard says. ‘But dost thou love life, then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of,’ as Poor Richard says. How much more than is necessary do we spend in sleep! forgetting that ‘The sleeping fox catches no poultry, and that there will be sleeping enough in the grave,’ as Poor Richard says.

The collective wisdom was the unsurprising philosophy that hard work, thrift and moderation produced both material comforts and spiritual salvation.

Franklin’s immersion in book culture was so complete that he repeatedly imagined his life, and even his physical self, as a printed book. As a young man in 1728, Franklin composed his own epitaph, which—eternal self-promoter that he was, even in the image of death—he was fond of copying out for friends:

The Body of

B. Franklin, Printer; Like the Cover of an old

Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its

Lettering and

Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the

Work shall not be wholly lost:

For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,

In a new & more perfect Edition,

Corrected and Amended By the Author.

He was born January 6, 1706.

Died 17­—

His actual gravestone, which he shares with his wife, reads simply: BENJAMIN AND DEBORAH FRANKLIN 1790.

Adapted from The Book-Makers: A History of the Book in Eighteen Lives by Adam Smyth. Copyright © 2024. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books LLC., a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. New York, NY, U.S.A. All rights reserved.

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