Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hot type

A typo. Can you catch it?

    I don’t text.
    Which reason would you like? There are so many. How about these: all those thumbs, all thos misspeled words. LOL. :) I compulsively edit my Facebook status reports. How could I bear to text?
    There are other reasons.
    Yet texting is like typing, you say. You build words and sentences a letter at a time.
    No, I say, it is not like typing. I learned to type a long time ago. I use all eight fingers and both thumbs. It’s easy to delete a line and write a new one.
    I don’t text, but I thought a lot about that the other day, when I built a paragraph of 172 words out of metal, letter by letter.
The type drawer
    Let me start again.
    For all of June, I was fortunate enough to be a writer-in-residence at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota. This meant that I lived with four other artists and writers in a big house, ca. 1914, ate dinner prepared nightly by a chef, and worked to revise a novel. I wrote every day, missed my wife and dogs, and once went into town to see the world’s largest boot.
    You can read more about the Anderson Center here. It has a compelling history, and it has made a real difference for the arts in Minnesota, nationally, and internationally. The grounds of the center also include an alternative high school and a small independent publisher called Red Dragonfly Press.
    Scott King runs Red Dragonfly. He publishes mostly poetry, and quite a few of the books are done in the modern way: designed and typeset on computers. But equally important to the operation are his 19th-century printing technologies. In the old way, Scott casts letters out of metal, arranges them as words and poems, and then applies ink to press them into elegant, old-style pages and books. This is, in the old parlance, hot type. (Current publishing uses cold computer type).
    Scott was kind enough to instruct me in this traditional fashion of typesetting and then let me have at it. With his help, I assembled 959 characters of Dante font, 12-point type, with spaces, one tiny piece of metal at a time. It took me 2½ hours just to build the paragraph.
   “That’s pretty fast for a first time,” he said. “You might be a natural.”
   Isn’t this like texting?
   Sort of not.
Scott positions the hot type on the press
    Back in another life, when I was first learning the newspaper trade, we were taught to count headlines. We were allowed so many spaces in a column, and that count changed depending on the size (points) of the letters. So, a capital W (huge width) was worth two points. A lower case i was worth a half. You wrote your headline, then added up the count to see if your words would fit.
    This practice was a remnant from the days of using hot type. Letters and words do have physical properties: widths, heights, and, in hot type, even weights. In composing my paragraph metal letter by metal letter, I was reminded of this.
Hours later...
    It’s good, sometimes, to get back to the beginnings of things. I took up hunting to learn what it meant to kill, gut, skin and butcher an animal before eating it. It seemed an important thing to understand if I continued to pull shiny packages of meat off grocery store shelves. Likewise, I know photographers who believe it is important to learn the practices of a darkroom, even in these days of point-shoot-Flickr.
    I would like my creative writing students to one day build their sentences out of metal. I want them to understand the weight of letters and words. They would learn which words are truly extraneous. They would come to value use over utilize. They would learn that to build your words from metal, you must love them.