Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words, John Man

I love lead type. Something about typography, which I have a disproportionate love of in general, in a physical solid form is very pleasing. The feeling of cold type in your fingers is a visceral thrill that I have trouble coming quite to terms with. It’s like a word that you know well, but every time you ponder it the word becomes alien. Maybe you break it down by syllable, or context, or say it aloud a few times in a row slowly, but it seems so strange and foreign—that’s how I feel whenever I handle type. It’s the purest link between mechanism and knowledge. Put together a group of letters, painstakingly hand-set from a California job case (now unfortunately known as “knick-knack shelves) in a form, pressured in with furniture and you have a page of information—those little abstract letters bound together in a block of metal that creates ideas. Of course, the ideas can be revolutionary, but more often than not they are mundane, profane, sacred, sacrilegious, and barely worth noticing. Doesn’t matter to me—or at least for the sake of this little rant. The important thing is the physical process of translating ideas that I find fascinating.

Also notable is that type refers to a physical object. A font of type is a measurement—a complete set of the particular typeface. In the 20th century, you might order some type from M & H in San Francisco, and it would come aesthetically wrapped in cardboard and paper, the leaden weight of it pleasingly bold in your hand.

When we work in a page layout program, or tweak Microsoft Word to 18pt so we can make a larger headline, we don’t think about the poor compositor of old who, to recreate our simple pulldown menu, would have to pull the 18pt drawer out and start setting on his stick. Nor do we think about Fournier, the french type founder and think about how we wouldn’t have a measurement called points without him and his treatise Manuel Typographique. When adjusting the leading, we don’t think about how the term came about from actually sticking flat widths of lead between lines.

This doesn’t matter, though—and it shouldn’t—to the everyday modern use of language. Publishing should be freely available to every person who chooses to publish, and those who fear that with so many voices there will be no distinct voices, I challenge you to find a community online that if you spent some small amount of time in, you could find the articulate voices.

Imagine, though, living in a time when to publish something—let’s say this adoration I’m writing now—you would have written it by hand. To get a copy to somebody, you would have had to copy it yourself—or hire someone to do it. If you were wealthy—say, the church—you could afford to put groups of these copiers together, feed, clothe and house them (conveniently getting them to vow their lives and souls to your purpose), and work them in a scriptorium during every waking daylight hour.

Now think about the kindergarten game telephone where children sit in a circle, and a secret is whispered in the first ear, and passed by whispering down the line until at the end the message is humorously garbled. That theory translates to transcription as well, and how every monk on a monday with a hangover or a cold or a terrible headache miscopied one small thing (a possible effect seen in the oft copied Importance of Correct Punctuation). Imagine you had to order a book—let’s say it’s not a bible of something important, but a grammar for your child. You weren’t purchasing paper and ink, you were purchasing blocks of human labor.

But then came the invention attributed to Johann Gutenberg. John Man does a fantastic job of digging through the scant evidence, and taking us a journey through the potential story that happened mid-15th century to bring printing to the mainstream. Better than pouring over the court documents referring to Gutenberg, he does a marvelous job of setting the time and place. History is only as good as the understanding of the cultural events which influenced the events we study, and Man’s indulgences into Europe of the day all serve the purpose of bringing the history more alive.

Best of all, it’s a fun read. I’ll talk more in the future about Gutenberg, typography and printing on this blog—but what better place to start then looking at this book about when it all started.

A very good passage deals with a task that currently is only easy in a few programs: Hanging punctuation.

Yet Gutenberg’s [type] setting is beautifully even, without being crammed. he achieved this by using all those little scribal tricks of compression, which we have dropped, and then avoided the somewhat sterile look of modern typesetting with a little stroke of genius: he did not count hyphens and punctuation marks as characters, so these overhang at the right, providing a pleasing element of relaxation, relieving the austere clarity of general design with a charming variety of detail. It’s a look that lintoype machines and word processors cannot of do not do automatically. In so many respects, Gutenberg is the master still.

This little detail deserves a closer look, because it reveals the degree to which Gutenberg was obsessed with quality, an obsession which in this case seems to press at the fringes of sanity. For it is technically impossible to have a piece of type hanging off the edge, as the hyphen (and occasional full-stop) seems to. There is no space for it. The type was all contained within the forme — had to be, or it would all fall apart. So in order to be able to have a free-floating element on the end of a line, every non-hypenated line had to be indented by the width of the hyphen, even if that particular column had no hyphen. The column width of the main text is actually a hyphen’s-worth less than the forme’s width. This was a practice that quickly fell out of favour, as typesetters treated all characters equally within the body of the text. What could have he been thinking of, to impose on his team, and his budget, a device of such subtlety? Who would ever have noticed? Precious few, unless they were told; which suggests to me a possible explanation. Gutenberg yearned for perfection, not only because this was the culmination of his life’s work, but also because only perfection beyond the reach of any mortal scribe would persuade a prince or archbishop to buy. I think the hyphen was the salesman’s bullet-point, the telling detail visible only to the discerning eye, proving to their majesties and eminences that, although the bible looked like the best scribal work, it was actually something of an even higher order — super-scribal, super-human, and therefore with a touch of the divine. What ruler, when granted this insight into the new technology, could fail to be impressed into buying?
Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: October 17, 2005 04:08 PM
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