Win a copy of The Book!

Cover of The Book
Cover of The Book as designed by David High.

I may have mentioned that I have a new book coming out soon. This is your chance to win the first of four signed copies! To enter the giveaway, just do one of the following:

  • leave a comment on this post, making sure to supply a valid email address so that I can contact you in the event that you win, or
  • reply to or retweet the tweet announcing this contest, making sure to follow @shadychars so that I can send you a direct message if you win. (Please don’t create multiple accounts or repeatedly reply to the message — Twitter may ban you as a result. One entry is fine!)

This first round of the contest will close at noon GMT on Sunday 14th August 2016, so make sure you enter before then. After that I’ll pick one winner from the list of all unique entrants, and I’ll happily post a copy of The Book to them wherever they are in the world.

Good luck! And remember, if you don’t win this time round, there are three more chances still to come.

Update: The competition is now closed! Thank you for all your comments and tweets. I’ll announce the winner tomorrow, and kick off the next round of the competition!

Booking It № 2: Woodcut Printing at the Lavender Print School

This is the last of two posts in a series on Booking It. Start at PART 1 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

So: you’ve made some paper, and now you need to put something on it. Some text would be nice, but what about illustrations? For a thousand years, first in China and later in the West, the best way to do just that was to make a woodcut print — to carve out an image on a wooden block, apply ink, and press it onto the page.

Christ on the cross - German 15th century woodcut
German 15th Century, Christ on the Cross with Pope Pius II, c. 1475, woodcut, Rosenwald Collection 1943.3.476. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.)

Woodcut was the perfect match for the lead soldiers of movable type. The carven image was embossed on the wood, just as the letters were embossed on the type, and so the two could be locked up together to make a single “forme”, or printing surface, for each page. (Later printing methods, such as copperplate engraving, required text and images to be printed separately.) Moreover, wood blocks could be cut into any shape or size to facilitate more creative page layout — as in the page shown above, where the image of Christ on the cross would have been carved onto a T-shaped block to leave room for a column of text to either side. Perhaps most important of all, wood was a forgiving medium: plentiful, easy to carve, and simple to repair with a dowel or plug in case of a mistake.

That’s the theory, at least. But what about the practice? Back in 2014, in the course of writ­ing The Book, I got the chance to find out when a friend introduced me to Liz K. Miller, a printmaker working at the Lavender Print School in Battersea, London, and who helped me try my hand at making a woodcut print of my own.

When I arrived one day in June of that year, Liz showed me into the bright, white, airy studio where she was helping a class of students prepare for an upcoming exhibition. For me, more accustomed to a mid-1950s library pierced only by a few wan skylights, it was like stepping into the open air. The walls were hung with finished prints and many more dangled from drying racks hung from the roof. Liz presented me with a block of wood about the size of an A5 sheet of paper and asked me to draw out the design I wanted to print.

Now I am not, nor have I ever been, an artist. A compromise was reached: I’d find a design I liked, trace it using a wax crayon, then burnish the tracing onto the wooden block. I flipped through some of the studio’s sample books and chose a simple image of a friendly baleen whale, as you can see below.*

Wood block with design in crayon
My wood block, with a copied design just visible in yellow crayon. (Image by the author.)

Eat your heart out, Dürer.

Woodblock printing tools
A set of Japanese woodblock carving tools. Each one has a different profile; I used the U-shaped one in the centre of the box. (Image by the author.)

The next step was to carve the design into the wood itself using the set of metal-tipped wood-carving tools you can see here. These came from Japan, which, like China, has a robust tradition of woodcut printing. The tool I chose had a U-shaped blade designed to remove wood from the surface of the block when run across it at a shallow angle — a sort of ice-cream scoop for wood.

Liz encouraged me to try carving a few lines on the back of the block. “It’s almost like butter,” she said, and after some experimentation I could start to see what she meant. I might qualify her statement to say that wood is like butter only with tighter tolerances: Get the angle of the tool right and it tills the surface with ease, carving out a springy curl of wood. Too shallow and it skates over the surface of the block; too deep and it catches and beds in. It was a tricky process but rewarding when it worked.

It’s worth nothing that the woodcutter who created the image at the top of the page carved out all the non-printing areas — only the black, printed lines were left raised above the surface — as was typical of most woodcut illustrations of the time. In my case, in the interests of saving some time I carved out only the lines of my design, creating an intaglio, or inset print. This was the result:

Wood block with design in crayon
The carved wood block, ready for printing. (Image by the author.)

And so, after a surprisingly short amount of time, we were ready to print the image. Liz rolled some oil-based ink onto the surface of the block; I laid a piece of paper on top of it and used a soft pad to press the paper down onto the inked block, and then peeled off the paper. We were finished!

Inked wood block
The carved block with ink applied. The ink is a thick, oil-based mixture to stop it seeping into the engraved (intaglio) areas. (Image by the author.)

Our first print was a little uneven but the second, which you can see below, was much better. Liz kept the block and the first print for demonstration purposes (a compliment or a warning to future students? I couldn’t tell) and I proudly brought home the second.

As with my attempts at making paper, I came away from my day at the print school with a considerable amount of respect for the craftspeople who made (and who still make) books in the traditional manner. Woodcut printing today may be more closely associated with art than with bookmaking, but the fact remains that the world of books once leaned on it heavily: for many centuries woodcut was an equal partner of movable type, and books were all the better for it.

Woodcut print
The finished print! (Image by the author.)

Many thanks to Liz Miller for guiding me through the process of making my print, for answering all my questions, and for buying me a coffee from the roving barista who took orders from thirsty artists. Liz is no longer at Lavender Print School (she has just completed a three-year Print Fellowship at the Royal Academy Schools), but you can learn more about her work at her website or at her Facebook page. There are more pictures from my day at Lavender in this album at Google Photos.

Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this article, why not buy a copy of The Book? It examines the invention of woodcut printing, its journey to the West courtesy of Marco Polo and his contemporaries, and much more besides. The Book will be published in both the UK and the USA in August 2016.

Sadly, there were no sperm whales to be found. ↩︎

The Book: a launch!

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”.

Visit the Waterstones website to get your free tickets, and I look forward to seeing you there!*

And, of course, if you can make it, I’ll be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival earlier in the day to chat with Gerry Cambridge and Stuart Kelly about books, typography and more. ↩︎

Booking It № 1: Making Paper with Chrissie Heughan

This is the last of one posts in a series on Booking It.

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.

The dried inner bark of the kozo plant
The dried inner bark of the kozo plant. (Photograph by the author.)

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.

Hollander beater
Chrissie Heughan’s Hollander beater, used to beat plant matter into pulp for papermaking. (Photograph by the author.)

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.

A laid mould
A laid mould, comprising a wooden frame hinged to the deckle that closes to hold the mat in place. (Photograph by the author.)

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.)

Sieving the pulp
Sieving the pulp. Note the removable wooden “deckle” around the edge of the wire mesh wove mould. (Photograph by the author.)

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.

Couching the paper
Couching, or turning out the paper. Here Chrissie rolls a sheet onto a convex wooden board covered in cushioning layers of fabric and cloth. (Photograph by the author.)

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.

Pressing the paper
Here, the remaining water is squeezed out of the paper with a screw press. (Photograph by the author.)

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.

A sheet of handmade paper
A finished sheet of paper made by the author. (Photograph by Michelle Gamble.)

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.

Having said that, almost every material that can be considered to be remotely fibrous has been given a shot at one time or another. Asbestos paper, anyone? ↩︎

Miscellany № 76: punctuating the summer

"Gouville-on-sea, world capital of the open sea oyster" - but not, evidently, world capital of punctuation. (Image courtesy of ITV.)
“Gouville-on-sea, world capital of the open sea oyster”. (Image courtesy of ITV.)

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:

Teleprompter feed for the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act
Excerpt from Lyndon Johnson’s teleprompter feed for the signing ceremony of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (Image courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, Austin, Texas [194.01.00].)

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.

Back in January this year, Michał Żadkowski pointed me in the direction of a Daily Mirror article on what the paper called the “Semicolon Project”. As Nicola Oakley writes:

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.