Robotham - Thank you, Mr. Gutenberg

A longtime lover of words and books discovers the joy of setting type the old fashioned way

By Tom Robotham

In my column in the October issue—an essay about a local stained-glass artist—I noted that I am fascinated by practitioners of traditional crafts of all kinds. They remind us of the value of slowing down, paying attention to aesthetics and creating things of enduring value—counterweights to mainstream contemporary culture, which seems to view everything as disposable.

With this in mind I recently continued my inquiry into traditional crafts with a visit to the letterpress shop at Old Dominion University. I’d heard about it over pool games with art professor Ken Daley, who runs the operation and teaches classes in typography. My goal was not only to see the shop and talk to Ken about his craft and art, but to learn to set type myself.

And so, on a sunny, late-autumn afternoon, I traveled to the visual arts building, on the north end of ODU’s campus, and found Ken in his office. In spite of his devotion to tradition, he is no Luddite. He was sitting at his cluttered desk in front of a 21-inch Mac monitor. But standing in sharp contrast to this icon of modern technology were the items cluttering the rest of the office—books, of course, but also stacks of paper, bottles of ink and various other tools of his trade.

After we chatted briefly about my project—he had suggested a week earlier that I bring in one of my poems, set it and print it—he led me into an adjacent room filled with 10 metal cabinets of shallow drawers, each containing hundreds of pieces of metal type in small wooden compartments.

The cases inside the drawers, he told me, are called California Job Cases, so named because they are laid out in a standard format that became popular with San Francisco printers in the 19th century. I opened one, picked up a piece of type at random and carefully examined it—a tiny fragment of lead, no longer than a fingernail, with the letter “b” raised on one tip. I’d seen this kind of type before.

Although I’d embarked on a career in newspapers a decade after publishers started producing print electronically, I'd once toured The New York Times offices and seen the old hand-crank presses, linotype machines and cases of type in a room devoted to the paper’s heritage. But that was many years ago. As I gazed at the job case, I felt a surge of fascination that a child feels upon discovering something for the first time.

“This is called a galley tray,” Ken explained, pointing to a flat piece of metal about the size of a piece of notebook paper, with raised sides. “This is where you set your type.” After looking at the first line of my poem, he began pulling type from the various compartments with astonishing speed. He seemed to know the California Job Case the way a touch typist knows the QWERTY keyboard—although, admittedly, even he can’t set moveable type as quickly as a typist can bang out a sentence. Nevertheless, in about a minute, he had set the first line.

I admired his skill all the more after trying to set a line myself. To my right was a chart indicating where each letter was in the case. But finding them seemed tediously slow. It took me 15 minutes to set the first line, going back and forth between the chart and the job case, and then carefully laying the individual pieces into the galley tray.

Ken also showed me the cabinets containing strips of lead, which are used to separate lines. (Hence the term leading, which all designers know without perhaps understanding the origin of the term.) Then he left me to my own devices. As tedious as the process was when I began, I quickly became engrossed in it, slipping into a kind of meditative state.

The process had a profoundly calming effect. But something even more important began to happen. I began to pay attention to the letters and words in a way that I never had before, even rewriting lines of my poem on the spot because I was no longer happy with them. It was a striking epiphany. As a writer and teacher of literature, I love words. I always have, thanks in large part to growing up with a father who was a librarian and passionate bibliophile. I also love elegant typefaces and fine paper. But the truth is, I write almost everything on a word processor and have been a fairly speedy typist since high school. The upside of this is that I’m prolific—I can turn out thousands of words in a few hours. The downside is that the words flow out too quickly for me to fully appreciate them.

In sharp contrast to my normal productivity, it took me about two hours to set six lines of type. Ken assured me that I would catch on quickly as I got used to the process, and he was right—to an extent. As time passed, I found myself grabbing some letters without even looking at the tray.

I just knew where they were by feel. But there are limits to the speed with which one can set moveable type, and that, as I’ve noted, has its advantages.

Ken, who learned typesetting back in the 1950s while attending art school in Philadelphia, agreed that the ways in which setting type slows down your mind is part of the appeal. But he noted that the appeal of letterpress printing is multifaceted. “There’s a tactile quality to it, both in the process—if you love words, the appeal of holding them in your hands is only natural—and in the result. Words produced by letterpress printing have a texture to them that electronically produced type does not. But ultimately,” he added, “the appeal is ineffable. It’s really hard to explain it to people. They have to do it. When you talk about this, most people think you’re crazy.”

I already understood this ineffable appeal. But I wondered if this might be a matter of his age—and mine. A matter of mere nostalgia. Not so, as it turns out. Some of the ODU students in their early 20s made similar remarks. (Students can take Ken’s class as part of the requirements for an art major, or as an elective.)

Leslie Renn, a senior art student, likened the comparison between letterpress and electronically generated type to music played on vinyl records versus CDs or MP3 files.

“It’s kind of sterile,” she said of electronic production. “Letterpress printing feels more organic; it has more character.”

My personal goal beyond this process is also to learn to produce hand-bound books. But I’m a long way from achieving that goal. As of this moment, I have worked for about three hours in the letterpress shop and am just a little more than halfway through completion of my single-page poem. After that, I’ll put it on something called a flat-bed proofing press and see how it looks. In next month’s column, I’ll let you know how it turned out.

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