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.


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