Preparing to print

Learning and Unlearning Print

Letterpress Printing

After this lab, I’ve surmised that letterpress printing in the 21st century is a painstaking process of learning and unlearning – first, one must learn the basics of the machinery and how it all comes together; then, one must figure out the minutiae, like how cases are organized and how to place type and flush a block of text. Of course, it is also necessary to know how to use the press itself. The process is laborious, since each tiny piece of the letterpress needs to be placed perfectly for a project to be successful. It took my group and I over an hour to set one short verse of a poem, since we had to learn to avoid small mistakes – like how we needed to use spacers that were the same size as the text and to pick the right size leading. And we are not printing a full book or even a full poem, so I can’t imagine how many hours it would take to set up all of the text for, say, the Bible. Finishing our block of text, however, was satisfying after putting in all of the effort. I know it’s going to feel even more satisfying when we’re able to print as many copies of the text as we want. It reminds me of The Machine That Made Us or even the last Gleick reading – the development of communication and language is laborious and time-consuming, but once they culminate into a technology like the printing press – the outcome is powerful and rewarding. I can’t imagine how it must have felt for Gutenberg to be able to mass-produce a seemingly infinite amount of books in a short period of time, instead of putting hours into crafting one book by hand. I’ve also come to understand how revolutionary it must have been to utilize this technology, which offered people the opportunity to spread language and information on a new, massive scale. I can picture the degree to which the arts and (and even math and sciences) flourished with this invention. Although a flourishing of arts and sciences definitely occurred before this historical moment, I feel like it never occurred in quite this way. Reading and writing become different and dominant forms of communication, and they undoubtedly helped conserve texts and convey them to more people, especially across class lines – not just for the aristocratic or the elite.

While the learning aspect of letterpress printing is obvious, as hitherto described, letterpress printing also requires some unlearning. For me, I had to detach what I know about typing and printing (because of computers) from setting type and printing on the printing press. Remembering that such an action as “typing” didn’t exist until recently is one example of unlearning – the process of creating type to print is much more intricate. Texts were crafted by multiple hands, for many people, because of multiple technologies, through the money of rich men. Human labor and therefore humanity seem to be two central aspects of letterpress printing, whereas a computer doesn’t implicate questions of human labor and humanity in quite the same way. This concept seems pretty abstract, as I type it, but I feel like Melville’s “The Tartarus of Maids” sums it up pretty well:

“Always, more or less, machinery of this ponderous, elaborate sort strikes, in some moods, strange dread into the human heart, as some living, panting Behemoth might. But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it.”

Melville takes great pains to juxtapose humanity and technology, in this case the production of paper. The paper mill is a dark, inhumane hell of industrialized processes; it takes over human life; yet, it also presents new possibilities in its blankness. This is one such framework through which one can consider printing in a new way. In other words, one must unlearn the streamlined process of printing, as well as the impersonal nature of modern word processors and computer programs. For Melville’s protagonist, printing presses removed a layer of humanity found in hand-written manuscripts; for the 21st century student, computers arguably remove yet more of these layers.

The Print Shop and Its Texts

I feel like I do not have the knowledge to be able to speak to the cultural, political, philosophical, and artistic artifacts, but I can imagine that letterpress printing completely changed the terrain for the dissemination of information and texts in all of these spheres. The print shop helps us think about texts because who and how and why certain texts are being printed completely changes their contexts. Take religious texts, for example – before Gutenberg, monks in scriptoriums were usually working one or a few commissions at a time for elite patrons, who then used the religious manuscripts for status, missionary work, or certain religious/political propaganda (like the comparison of Charles the Bald to King David in the Vivian Bible). Also, if a priest in the medieval period were using an expensive, elaborately-decorated Gospel Book, say – he was the only one reading it; its opulence was meant to impress church-goers and convince them of God’s righteousness; its physical presence was a symbolic, earthly representation of the Word of God, but common-folk never actually read the text. With the invention of the printing press and innovations in its technology over the years, anyone could eventually buy and read a copy of the Bible (this also brings literacy into question…which is probably another topic to explore another time). Printers also controlled how text and images appeared on the page, which therefore affected how people read and interpreted these documents. Printers’ roles and influences are central to this discussion, as well as our experiences during labs.