'Words as Character Strings': Composing and Printing in the Handpress Period

Composition and Reading

Even the system [of an alphabet] is unnatural. It forces the user to detach information form meaning; to treat words strictly as character strings; to focus abstractly on the configuration of the word (Gleick, 58).

In Chapter 3 of The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick delves into the history of the first ever English language dictionary. Published in 1582 by Robert Cawdrey, this dictionary was the catalyst for a vital moment in history, marking the first call for the standardization of English definition and spelling. Aside from introducing standardization, Cawdrey also sought to introduce something that had never before been self-evident: alphabetical order.

As something that we take for granted today - much like the way we think of the world in multiples of ten, because we have ten fingers - alphabetical order was never necessary until language made the switch from oral to written, and then, ultimately, to printed.

Though a printer’s case was not set up in alphabetical order, the layout of each font was intentional, created with a sort of standardization that allowed composers access to the most common letters as quickly as possible, and enabled them to easily memorize the placement of each individual sort within the case.

In a YouTube video titled “How to use a composing stick,” a young man demonstrates how to use a composing stick to set a line of type. At 3:40, the narrator explains, “As soon as your fingers reach the type, spot the next letter…If you fail to spot the type correctly, you will have to look to turn it properly, then it will take extra time to look for the next piece of type.” The root, then, of composing type is rooted heavily in efficiency and speed, with marginal room for actually reading the type being composed.

Rather than paying attention to the full sentence or line being composed, the compositor is tasked with setting his type letter by letter, as quickly and as accurately as he can. His skill is impressive, quickly sorting and setting the type in a sort of monotony. But something interesting happens when someone can compose and set a book without, it can be argued, ever really having read it. Despite a direct hand in the production of the book, the compositor looks at the type as just that - individual sorts that must be arranged in a pre-determined order with accuracy - rather than as complete words and the embodiment of language.

That is not, of course, to diminish the work of composers or to label them as illiterate; it is merely a commentary on the systematic and memorized movements of setting type during this period of printing and the level of separation created between the words being printed and the person who is so profoundly close to them that their hands set the very type that made them up.

When setting my own type in class, I was amazed at how repetitive, and reductive, of a process it can be. Though I had a full sentence in mind, when composing, it became all about each individual letter - where to find it in the case, how much room it would take up, and making sure it was set properly among the other pieces of type.

Printing vs. Publishing

We often think of print as the best and longest-lasting means of preservation; if it was printed on paper, that paper can last for decades or even centuries (if it was made of the good stuff).

In her essay “Print Culture (Other Than Codex): Job Printing and Its Importance,” Lisa Gitelman details the idea behind print culture and the importance of printing texts that were not codices. She makes the claim that printing, in fact, “doesn’t really preserve things,” but rather that it is the act of having print bound into a codex that encourages and allows for textual preservation (187).

The reality is that print is often romanticized as a rewarding, educational, and invaluably important means of reproducing textual information - all of which it is. But most often, the paper being run through a printing press was to create documents for “businesses doing business” (190). In fact, in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, of all the printing shops he works in, Franklin never mentions that he ever printed a book - reading them, of course, and collecting them with vigor for his soon-to-be library, but never actually engaging in printing them.

As a result, we are able to think of printers in a new light - as producers of literature and art and philosophy, yes - but as businessmen, and educators, and news distributors.

The Ephemerality (and Labor) of Print

Printing during the hand press period was no easy feat. From hand-made paper, to hand-composed type, to hand-operated printing presses, labor is involved in every single part of the printing process. These three distinct but integrally related activites were each vital steps in the creation of printed works, whether they were bound codices or ephemeral objects like indulgences.

In either case, printers are the conveyors of knowledge, but it is important to remember the slaves picking cotton for young women to turn into paper, for an apprentice to set the type for a printer to ink and press with paper (and, if publishing a book, for a binder to sew and bind together to make a codex).

By forgetting the scenes that took place outside of the print shop we, in a way, devalue the act of printing itself.