The publication of The Book is almost upon us (it’s out on August 12th in the UK and August 23rd in the US) and we’re having a bit of a bash at Waterstones in Edinburgh’s west end to celebrate. I’ll be there at 7pm on the evening of August 16th to do a short reading and then have a chat with the indispensable Lee Randall. After that we’ll find somewhere local for a few celebratory drinks and, if you like, I can deface your shiny new copy of The Book with my illegible and ridiculous “signature”.
Did I mention that my second book is coming out next month? I did? In the course of writing it I interviewed a whole host of people involved with the arts and crafts that go into making books, and the run-up to the publication of The Book seems like an apt time to share some of their experiences and knowledge.
But where to start? We could go all the way back to clay tablets and cuneiform in Mesopotamia’s Middle Bronze Age, or to the invention of papyrus in early Pharaonic Egypt (and I do, in The Book!), but for modern books, paper is the be-all and end-all. Without paper, there are no books. And so, way back in November 2013, I visited a Scottish papermaker named Chrissie Heughan at her studio in Edinburgh, where I asked her to take me through the process of making paper by hand. This is what I learned.
Paper as we know it, as opposed to laminated, papery materials such as papyrus, starts with pulped plant fibre.* Most paper today is made from wood, but the earliest Chinese paper was made from a mix of bark, old fishing nets and beaten rags, while for a long time, in both East and West, old linen rags woven from flax were the favoured source of fibre. For her part, Chrissie specialises in paper made from two other traditional papermaking fibres: the feathery inner bark of the kozo plant, the staple raw material of feudal Japan’s papermaking industry (seen above), and short cotton fibers called “linters” that yield the clothlike paper used for banknotes.
Having chosen a source of fibre, the next step is to pulp it — that is, to beat, rip, or otherwise render it down into individual fibres suspended in a bath of water. Historically, pulp for mass market paper was made by pounding the fibrous matter by hand or machine, but things have moved on since then. Nowadays, wood pulp for the low-grade paper found in cheap paperbacks is made by mechanically grinding up wood chips; longer-lived acid-free paper is more often made from wood chips “cooked” in a stew of chemicals until they break down into individual fibres.
To produce the pulp for her handmade paper, Chrissie uses a downsized version of a machine called the Hollander beater (shown above), invented in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century and once used in countless paper mills. In a Hollander beater, a metal paddle wheel drives a watery mixture of kozo, cotton linters, or other fibre around a circular trough, teasing out the fibres as the suspension circulates past its metal blades. It’s a simple solution and an elegant one, scalable from sink-sized devices like Chrissie’s all the way up to giant industrial versions.
This is where I came in. Chrissie had a basin of cotton pulp standing at the ready when I arrived, and we prepared to transform it into paper.
“So, um, what do we do now?” I asked.
First, Chrissie told me, you have to choose a mould. The essence of papermaking, the very centre of it, is the act of sieving out a matted sheet of fibres from the vat of pulp, and to do that you need a flat, porous mould. For handmade paper, moulds come in two basic forms: “Wove” moulds, like the one I tried out, are simple sheets of fabric or other mesh fixed to a wooden frame. The more expensive “laid” moulds, on the other hand, start with a similar wooden frame but are completed by a removable, flexible mat assembled from strips of dried grass, wooden skewers, or metal wire. In both cases, a second frame called a “deckle” sits atop the first and defines the edges of the sheet of paper. (You can see a laid mould above and a wove mould below.)
Next, you take up the mould by its edges and dip it vertically into the pulp before straightening it out and bringing it up out of the murk. It brims with water and fibre, contained by the deckle, and you must give it a gentle shake to drive off the excess water and even out the fibres at the same time. As with anything worth doing, this “shake” is easy to learn but hard to master, and the vatmen employed in the old handmade paper mills took great pride in theirs. To lose one’s shake after an accident or a prolonged absence from the mill was a career-ending disaster.
How did I do? Put it this way: an afternoon spent in a papermaking studio is emphatically not long enough to gain a decent shake, never mind lose it.
So: you’ve taken the mould out of the vat and expelled the excess water with a gentle shake. Left on the mould is a thin layer of felted fibres — a sheet of paper in the making. Getting the sheet off the mould is called “turning out”, or “couching”, and this is where laid moulds come into their own: their flexible screens can be lifted off the frame and the damp sheet of paper rolled gently onto a flat surface, but things are a little more tricky when using a rigid wove mould, as we were. Couching the paper was, in fact, very nearly as difficult as sieving out the fibres in the first place; difficult enough, in fact, that in paper mills of old a vatman would hand the mould to his counterpart the “coucher”, whose job it was to turn out the felted mat of fibres in preparation for pressing and drying. Without a coucher to do the work for us, I followed Chrissie’s lead to gently roll my wove mould across a convex wooden board to leave behind the sheet of fibre.
The final stage in our abbreviated tour of the papermaking process was to press out the bulk of the water that remained in the fibres. Chrissie layered my sheet of paper between protective felts and used a small screw press to squeeze out the remaining water, and we were finished! Chrissie wrapped up my misshapen, damp sheet of paper in some paper towels (of course!) and gave me instructions to let it dry out for another day or so. Back at home I laid it on a sunny windowsill, but papermakers over the centuries have dried paper in a huge variety of way: on brick walls heated by fires lit behind them; hung over clotheslines in the rafters of their mills; or, in mechanised paper mills, run between great metal cylinders powered and heated by steam.
After these relatively simple steps — after obtaining a source of fibre, pulping it, sieving out a sheet, couching it, pressing it, and drying it — what comes out at the other end is something like the sheet of paper you see below. Being made from cotton linters it has more in common with a banknote than the pages of a paperback book, but even then it’s a far cry from the crisp tenner you might withdraw from an ATM. More than anything else, what this extremely humble sheet of paper illustrates is exactly how skilled papermakers had to be in order to turn out ream after ream of handmade paper smooth enough for printing and writing, and on which the running of the world depended. Simple it may be, but easy it is not.
I must thank Chrissie Heughan for showing me how to make paper, for answering my incessant questions with good grace, and for waiting patiently for almost three years for this article to appear! You can learn more about Chrissie’s work at her website or her Facebook page, and you can view all my pictures from my day at Chrissie’s studio in this album at Google Photos.
Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this article, why not buy a copy of The Book? It delves into the fascinating stories behind the invention of paper and much more besides, and it’ll be published in both the UK and the USA in August 2016.
The first stage of this year’s Tour de France ran from Mont-Saint-Michel to Utah Beach/Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, along the north-west coast of the Manche region, on the second of July. As the riders followed the 188km route, they passed through the little town of Gouville-sur-Mer, which, in the time-honoured tradition of provincial villages that the Tour visits but once every few decades or so, laid out its slogan for the TV helicopter to see: Gouville-sur-Mer, capitale mondiale de l’huître de pleine mer (Gouville-on-sea, world capital of the open sea oyster).
So now you know.
World oyster capital though it may be, Gouville-sur-Mer is not, evidently, the world capital of diacritics: the noble circumflex, which should have reigned proudly over the word huître, was nowhere to be seen. Nor were any other non-alphabetic marks — not the hyphens that should have appeared in Gouville-sur-Mer or the comma that should have come after it, and not the apostrophe that should have punctuated l’huître. And yes, tweets and instant messages may be increasingly doing without their full stops, but I could have handled one appearing here. For shame, Gouville-sur-Mer! I salute your oyster credentials but I deplore your aerial typography.
In other news, reader Hillel Smith dropped me a line to follow up on the discussion here, a couple of months back, on Winston Churchill’s unusual approach to punctuating the notes for his speeches. Hillel wrote to tell me about a similar approach taken by President Lyndon Johnson on the occasion of the signing ceremony of the Civil Rights Act on the 2nd of July, 1964 — or at least a similar approach taken by whoever had prepared Johnson’s teleprompter notes. The image below is the first part of the text that appeared to Johnson that day on the teleprompter:
You can click through to see more of the speech at the Library of Congress’s exhibit on the Civil Rights Act — and you most definitely should, because what this image doesn’t show is the nuanced approach to ellipses that prevails throughout. In Johnson’s speech, one dot is used to mean a full stop, two dots a short pause, three a longer pause, and so on. Where Churchill used indentation, Lyndon B. Johnson used ellipses of varying lengths; clearly, politicians are not averse to bending punctuation to their own purposes, and I wonder what other novel uses of punctuation might be lurking out there in the great speeches of the world.
You might have seen people on social media posting pictures of semicolons drawn or tattooed on their wrists or elsewhere on their bodies. […] Non-profit mental health organisation, The Semicolon Project, is encouraging anyone who has been through depression, anxiety, or had suicidal thoughts, to draw a semicolon on their wrist. While some have settled for a temporary ‘tat’ drawn on in biro, others have committed by getting inked.
I’m ashamed to say it took me some time to investigate further and even longer to post the results here today, but I’m glad that I did. I got in touch with Amy Bluel, the founder of what is more properly called Project Semicolon, to ask her about the semicolon and what it symbolized. She told me:
I chose the semicolon for our symbol because a semicolon is used when an author could’ve ended a sentence but chose not to. A semicolon symbolizes a pause or continuance. We are saying you are the author and the sentence is your life. You are choosing to continue.
It’s a noble aim. I’m glad that Michał brought it to my attention and that Amy was able to answer my questions, so thank you both! You can learn more at the Project Semicolon website or, if you need help with or would like more information about a mental health issue, please see the NHS’s list of mental health helplines.
Lastly, if punctuation is one of the typographic tools we use to clarify the meaning of the written word, then capital letters are another. Reader Glenn Fleischman wrote to let me know about a pair of articles he published recently on the use of uppercase letters as a signifier of shouting — not, as you might think, a phenomenon specific to the internet, but one with a much longer history. His articles, “CAPITAL CRIMES, PART 1: SHOUT, SHOUT, LET IT ALL OUT” and “CAPITAL CRIMES, Part 2: Usenet has no CHILL”, are well worth a read.
That’s all for now! Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy this week’s links.
I’m happy to announce that I’ll be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Tuesday 16th August, when Gerry Cambridge and I will be talking with Stuart Kelly about printing, typography, shady characters and — of course! — books. As the EIBF programme puts it:
IN PRAISE OF BOOKS AND TYPOGRAPHY
Editor of celebrated poetry journal The Dark Horse, Gerry Cambridge complements his poems with a passion for typesetting. Today he discusses The Printed Snow, an exquisitely presented essay on how to typeset poetry. Nobody knows more about pilcrows and interrobangs than Keith Houston, an Edinburgh-based punctuation expert. Here, Houston presents his paean to the most brilliant invention of modern times: The Book. Chaired by Stuart Kelly.
The event begins at 4pm in the Garden Theatre. Tickets are £12.00 or £10.00 for concessions and are available here. See you there, I hope!
I’m on holiday this week, spending some time in sunny Wisconsin with my wife Leigh’s family,* but a minor kerfuffle in the world of punctuation has come to pass that demands comment.
The issue is this: is the full stop on the ropes? That’s the thesis being discussed by newspaper writers in both Europe and America, prompted by remarks made by David Crystal at the recent Hay Festival. As quoted by the Telegraph’s Hannah Furness, Dr Crystal said:
One of the places the full stop is really being revised in a really fundamental way is on the internet. […] You look at the internet or any instant messaging exchange – anything that is a fast dialogue taking place. People simply do not put full stops in, unless they want to make a point. The full stop is now being used in those circumstances as an emotion marker.
This isn’t the first time that the apparent disappearance of the full stop has come under scrutiny. Back in 2013, Ben Crair of the New Republic noted that full stops were becoming increasingly rare in instant messages, and asked: “when did our plainest punctuation mark become so aggressive?” In “The Period Is Pissed”, Crair theorised that as full stops disappear from our instant messages, the stops that remain assume a more assertive, final tone. Whether that’s true or not,† it would certainly be in agreement with Dr Crystal’s assertion that the full stop is becoming a more emotive mark as it appears in fewer of our online messages.
What interests me is tangential to the change in meaning: why is it that the period is disappearing in the first place? I have to wonder if it’s all down to the medium, rather than the message.
My first instinct is blame Twitter. Consider the tweet: one hundred and forty characters isn’t much to play with (even if, as reported, links and photographs will soon be excluded from that total), and in such an environment all marks, whether letters or punctuation, become correspondingly more expensive. However, I’m not sure this is the whole story.
We’ve talked here many times about why the pilcrow (¶) disappeared in favour of the paragraph indent, and to me the decline of the full stop in online conversations is happening for much the same reason — in many cases the ‘.’ is rendered obsolete by changes in the visual appearance of the text in question. Both David Crystal and Ben Crair highlight instant messaging as a player in the ongoing drama of the full stop, and although most IM apps don’t labour under Twitter’s self-imposed character limits, they do share one particular feature: in almost every case, individual messages are surrounded by a border of pixels or a similar visual delineation. Why add a full stop to the end of a sentence when that sentence already luxuriates its own speech bubble?
Of course, this isn’t the full story — not all online text takes the form of instant messages or tweets, and not all IM applications format messages in such a regimented, delineated way. I’d love to hear your thoughts: is use of the full stop really on the wane? If so, why? Leave your comments below or, if you’d prefer, drop me a line via the Contact page!
- Top tips for a trip to Wisconsin: against all odds, Sparta’s Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum is a great place to visit; and, inexplicably, you’ll have oodles of fun at the Bizarro World mansion that is The House on the Rock. Architecture critics should stick to Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby Taliesin Estate. ↩︎
- Full disclosure: Crair interviewed me for his article; I didn’t feel then and I don’t feel now that it’s possible to say for certain that the period is becoming more aggressive, regardless of the context in which it’s used. ↩︎