Monday, October 25, 2010

Meanwhile, back in Mainz

BTW, the image above and in the following post feature the R Spiel, a game I picked up at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. It's a delightful way to geek out on serifs. And just so you know, I think the "solution" above is wrong, so it's no spoiler.

The Gutenberg Bibles, what can I say? They lay open there, sort of glowing under perfect lighting. The first Bible, not as well preserved as the other, looks surprisingly bedraggled; the 555 years haven't been so kind. The fanciful drop cap fuzzes out at its edges, and the paper seems to want to flake away, like rough construction paper (not that my fingertip could have ever come near it). The text appears so fantastically olde style-y: all stout bodies and dramatically angled "thins"—strokes that reduce a line to a sliver. Each line joins with all the other strokes to make a letter, and communicate. Anyone can write, but who can cut that assemblage of lines into steel, so that a softer metal could be placed on it and "stamped"—a gentle word for a hammer blow. And this was just the first step in Gutenberg's type casting process.

Now, as Gutenberg had to for his B42, let's go make 289 more. Not only did he have to cut upper and lower case but lots of ligatures, punctuation, and so on. No wonder the guy seemed constantly on the verge of financial ruin.

The other copy of the Bible I found less interesting despite its beautiful condition. It seemed to have been put away on publication, and I had to call on my experience to admire the fine print job especially given what must have been rustic conditions. I try to imagine the workshop where it was printed: the smell of oily ink, the illuminators babbling in German, the pressmen exercising their arms, and pressroom lackeys wetting the large sheets of paper and then laying prints out to dry.

I commune with history as long as I can, until I realize I've been away four hours, enveloped in a pink building in the heart of Mainz. It's hard to step away, but also hard to go any deeper. Fine books are like that. You want to hold, hold, hold them, and then if and when you can, the best will disappear in your hands as the story takes over. Gutenberg's masterpiece doesn't "speak" to me except as a sculptural object; I know too little German, and, even if I could read, the text wouldn't sing to me.

Out blinking in the bright autumn light, I feel like I'm shaking off a dream, but this one I remember.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

I got to spend four hours in the Gutenberg Museum, R you jealous?

I've been laying low in blogland as well as provincial Portland. At first, we had to. After Roy heckled a world-famous type designer (sorry, Mr. Barnbrook; thank goodness for the breezy recap kindly published here), we made a quick exit after only a few minutes of basking in his brilliance (he'd just said something wonderful about the naming of fonts and how it was, if I remember right, an opportunity to communicate to a specialized group, where the languages of poetry and design come together).

Then we fled the country altogether. Our happy out: Cousin John's wedding in Germany! Not only did we jump at the chance to finally cash in air miles for free travel, but we opted to extend the trip for a stay en France where I had visions of shacking up in a petite village, finding the best baguette baker, and basking in vacation glow. At the risk of gloating overly, it was all that and more.

The French part of the journey is already a haze of sun-drenched forest and kelly green landscape (with plenty of stops for stinky cheese and saucissons from the market), so it's probably a good thing we were able to wrench ourselves away and get back to business in Germany. That included the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz.

It was hard not to make a run for the B42s, of which the museum has a couple, housed inside a steel encased room with several layers of industrial doors—the kind of stuff you'd see in a Bond movie. Instead, I worked up to the main event, reading about Gutenberg's history, much of it shaped by political skirmishes and the exiles that followed. In fact there seem to be a couple of lost periods in Gutenberg's life—the stuff of novels, perhaps? I want to think he was wandering about China, picking up the craft behind wood and clay type and seeing how that would adapt to his idea for a newfangled printing machine.

Given Gutenberg's credit for the invention of metal movable type, I did wonder how Chinese printing history would fare. It's there, in a wing oddly set off from the main attraction, but full of info and objects.

Add in a few more floors on newspaper history, actual printing machines, papermaking exhibits, watermarking methods, and so on, and your head starts to spin. It's the Bibles, finished in 1455, that ultimately ground you. In the fully defended room, I was alone with them, one in surprisingly rough condition and the other so pristine I almost doubted its authenticity.

More TK.