Sunday, 10 November 2013

Chapbook Correspondence: analog printing, letterpress, ins & outs

‘In My Small Way’—Colophons, Typography, & Ligatures:
An Argument for Analog by Hugh Walter Barclay
edited by Joseph LaBine
—Nov. 10, 2013—
The colophon gets its name from a city on the Silk Road that goes by the name of Colophony, their army that always made a big charge at the end of each battle. The colophon is the printer’s charge at the end of the battle.The existence of the word shows the influence and respect amongst typographers in the 17th and 18th centuries. For example, there was a law in Britain that forbade public gatherings. There was an exception to this law and that provided for meeting inside “Chappels.”[1] The typographers union designated their shops as chapels and would often elect a father of the chapel. In doing so they changed the word “Chappel” to the modern chapel. It was not uncommon for a typographer to be addressed as Doctor Printer as he walked down the streets of the town. You must remember that this person was one of very few in that town who could read, write, & make books for others to read.

When I began Thee Hellbox Press in the early eighties colophons were always written in the third person. I was working as an Orthotic Consultant at the time and as such I was obliged to write patient notes for medical charts. These notes were written in the first person and signed essentially to provide a paper trail. However, third person colophons that might say for example, “The type was set in 12 pt. Caslon.” always made me ask, “Who set the type, perhaps your mother?” It always looked to me as a method to avoid responsibility, back then. I began to write the colophon in the first person, to take responsibility.  I was frowned upon by my older colleagues & private press operators but I have persisted and will continue. No one has followed my lead and I’m sure they have good reasons.

An author’s name appears on the title page. It’s not an ego trip. It’s an act of taking responsibility for the text written. You will often say: so & so wrote this book, when in reality you should say: so & so wrote the manuscript for this book, someone else made the manuscript[2] into a book. Not that I expect that anyone is actually going to change the way they speak.  

My first book was published by The Poole Hall Press in 1972. Bill Poole asked me how I wanted my name to appear on the title page. I had actually not considered that so I thought for a moment or two and said, “Mathew, Mark, Luke and John only used their first names and they had a best seller so I will only use my first name.” It didn’t take me long to realize that I was trying to avoid taking responsibility for the work so I decided then to use my full name Hugh Walter Barclay in an effort to take responsibility & make certain I wouldn’t get mixed up with others by the same name.

Recently I’ve been using the colophon to make political statements by inserting a few lines about our retrograde Conservative government. This is essentially my contribution to Press for Responsible Government—a loose knit group of private presses. It is interesting to me that I am obliged to submit to the Library & Archives Canada because ironically they are [still] obliged to accept, all this in effort save heritage.

Most people think that typography started with Gutenberg; however, Gutenberg knew his new means of communicating needed to be as aesthetically pleasing, and equal to the work done by scribes if it was going to sell. Scribes had the ability to make letters wider or narrower to fill out a line, they could justify both right & left, and thus, they could eliminate negative word spacing and reduce rivers to a minimum. They developed ligatures as a means of reducing negative letter space. In addition to all this, their ligatures were aesthetically pleasing. Gutenberg had 290 characters in his type drawers. He had wide, narrow, and normal widths for each letter, and an abundance of ligatures. If you examine a facsimile copy of the Gutenberg 42 line bible you will see pages laid out in two columns, both justified left & right. If you lift the bible up so it’s horizontal & level with your eyes you will not be able to read the text[4] but you can see clearly the negative word spaces and any rivers formed by them. You should be amazed by the control of negative space because what you’re looking at is a textured page.[5] I have been told it is the only book printed letterpress that does not have a typo/not a nick in a serif. When you compare a page from the Gutenberg bible to a book printed with digital type the difference is night & day.

The standard of typography has declined since Gutenberg mostly due to the economic pressure on presses to print stuff & sell with little concern for aesthetic standards.

I employ several methods to keep negative word spacing to a minimum. My pressmark is a petroglyph turtle and I have some made in 12pt font for lines justified both left & right that have a final word that will not fit into the line and cannot be hyphenated. I will reduce the negative word spacing by inserting a turtle or two usually where a comma or period appears. Around the turn of the century certain printing houses used dingbats for the same purpose, however, I find the dingbats outweigh the type face and as such they become very noticeable and distracting.[6]

About a year ago, I met with Merilyn Simmons at the special collections library at Queen’s University to help explain the nuances of a Gutenberg bible facsimile. We examined the book for some time before Merilyn, in her playful but poignant manner, said “so who cares?” I replied: “well I do. But, you are very correct in thinking that it’s easy to ditch typography because uneducated readers will never notice and ultimately don’t really care.”

In my small way I place such an emphasis on typography to educate people. We have already ditched cursive writing from the curriculum and general assault on typography began when Gutenberg died. Books should look good—even when you don’t know why they look good.  

Ligatures derive their name from the Latin ligat, meaning to bind. In most fonts you will find fi, ff, fl, ffi, ffl, and sometimes ct, and st. Ligatures are necessary to reduce the letter space that occurs between letters such as f & i. In lead type the hook on the“f” overhangs the body of the type. This overhang is called a kern. If you try to place an “i” following “f” the dot on the i will interfere with the kern on the “f” as will the “l”. If you try to follow the f with an “f” the kern of the first “f” will interfere with the second “f” and this will increase the letter space between the two letters on the page.

 I recently had a young unmarried couple who wanted to learn to set type visit my studio. I ask learners to come in with a quotation of their choice & the main objective of the session is to print that text. While my visitors set their texts I impressed a large wooden ligature, using yellow ink, in the centre of a piece of handmade paper. We impressed their quotes above and below but overlapping the ligature so that they appeared bound on the same page. This was a good opportunity for me to appreciate the significance of printing over an image that has been printed in a lighter colour. This technique gives depth to the page and floats the image. And it takes time to do—10 or 15 minutes per line—they were here for hours. But, many digital faces have eliminated ligatures in an effort to reduce costs.

 I bought a copy of The Convict Lover (1995) by Simmons. While reading it, I noticed that it’s printed in Adobe Caslon—the digital typeface that’s eliminated ligatures. I have the original Caslon type face and know that there is a ct ligature in that face that would work with convict. I immediately made the connection between ligatures (handcuffs) and convicts. The temptation was far too great; I printed about 10 bookmarks (with ligatures) & left them in a paper bag on Merilyn’s porch. The bookmarks were well received and I made my point with a smile—people still care.

Letterpress & analog printing methods have their disadvantages too. Letterpress bookmaking takes an inordinate amount of time, compared to commercially produced books, this makes the analog product expensive, and these products get printed in limited numbers.[7] I don’t know anyone who is making letterpress books & driving a Porsche.[8] People in this “business” because print this way because gives them joy.[9] There are 20,000 books published in Canada each year and less than 20 are printed using letterpress & very few (high quality letterpress) using the methodology I have described.   

[1] Yep. It’s ‘pp.’
[2] Let’s not forget the profundity of editing.
[3] Here Hugh argues that press books should still be visually pleasing, that printers should mimic the scribes that worked beautiful inlays & decorations into their books. Of course, while it’s easy to disagree at times with the overall aesthetic, he does validate the ephemera quality of the chap.
[4] which is in Latin,
[5] Gutenberg’s type face is now known as Textura.
[6] The Roycrofters from East Aurora NY used the dingbat method. Negative word spacing can be controlled using 4-to-the-em spacer, rather than a 3-to-the-em spacer following a period or comma. You need to understand that the visual spacing between round letters such as e & o can appear greater than the visual spacing between letters with apposing extenders such as l & b, knowing this allows one to adjust the word spacing accordingly. Judiciously reducing or word spacing also assists in preventing rivers, or the use of a turtle, dingbat, etc.

[7] But, still, limited numbers suited to a chap series.
[8] I will try to ensure that Hugh knows this statement is a non sequitur. Chapbooks & Porsche have no implicit relationship.
[9] Slightly sadistic, as it is…

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