The Phenomenology of the Hand-held

From a town in eastern Canada (Kentville, Nova Scotia) comes this “simplistic example” notable for its meditation on technology, commerce and craft…

Andrew Steves
Smoke Proofs: Essays on Literary Publishing, Printing & Typography
“The Ecology of Publishing: an interview”

I started my typographic education with hand-set lead type and letterpress even though I knew I was destined to do most of my design work on a computer. I started off with letterpress because I wanted to understand how type worked and where it began. That experience was invaluable, and I loved letterpress so much that I just kept doing it alongside all of the digital design work I do. But my point is that we need to understand the tools we use and the tradition we work in. You need to understand what job one tool does well but another does not. This is why we combine many generations of technology in our shop; the inventory of the tools we use really spans the whole history of typography. It’s a very broad toolbox. I don’t want to rule out a tool just because it’s old or new. But I do want to understand what it does well and the implications of using it.

The electronic text formats and the types of hardware we use them on are still evolving. Personally, electronic texts don’t interest me that much, at least not as something I’d want to manufacture. This is largely because I’m having too much fun making physical books. But I do see their value. When I want to read Thoreau’s writings, I have most of the volumes in the wonderful Houghton Mifflin series that was produced by the Riverside Press in the 1890s. I often end up trying to locate a line or two in a book I’ve read, and I’ll remember that it was part way through this or that volume on a verso page near the top; I might have made a small mark in the margin with a pencil. And I will find it again. There’s something about our relationship with the codex format and the light reflected off of a book page that helps us with reading, and with recall. There’s something sympathetic to our physiology about that information storage and transmission format. However, if I want to count how many times Thoreau mentions pine trees in The Main Woods, I don’t go to the paper edition. I go instead to the searchable pdf of that same Riverside Press edition which is loaded on my laptop. That’s an incredibly elegant tool when use for that particular task. This is a simplistic example but it demonstrates my point: you have to understand what tool does what job best.

It reminds me that phenomenologically the book is hand-held. Yes those great hulking reference works sitting on a lectern are books too or so they are called. But consulting the big dictionary is not an intimate reading experience. The demarcation may not be between codex and scroll (so much of on screen reading involves scrolling) but between the intimate, focalized event and other events. Held in the hand like an offering received.

And so for day 2590

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