A glimpse into the fascinating world of book-arts and the history of the written word.
ACOUPLE of weeks ago, I mentioned the Royal Press in this column. The Star published a two-page article about this printing company in January this year, and that’s how I learnt about it. I then found its Facebook page and signed up to be a volunteer.
I knew that there were plans to open the Royal Press to the public. There was talk of workshops and a museum. And then a couple of months ago, I was informed that the public could now pay for a guided tour of the premises.
A good friend and I finally made it to Melaka and the Royal Press in November, and found ourselves in “geek heaven”: Priya and I are mad about typefaces and fonts – typesetting and moveable type. Right now what we know just skims the surface. We know the names of fonts. We know a little of the history of printing. There is a lot more to learn. Hopefully, volunteering with the Royal Press will lead to a deeper understanding of the art of typography.
Printing these days is about loading up our laser jet printers with paper and clicking the “print” icon on our computer screens. Commercial printing has to do with typesetting programmes and what, to the layman, looks like industrial-size photocopying machines. To tell you the truth, I’m not terribly familiar with the process or the terminology. I was so excited when I realised the origins of the term “leading” (pronounced “ledding”), which I was familiar with as a sub-editor at The Star: It refers to the spaces between printed lines, which, in the days of moveable type and hand-typesetting, were achieved by laying down strips of lead (hence the pronunciation) between the lines of assembled type.
What we rarely think about is the time and effort that used to go into the making of books. Once upon a time, books were handwritten. This naturally limited their number, distribution and ownership. The earliest printing method originated in China in the third century and used carved woodblocks to transfer text and images onto cloth and paper. Moveable type was created in the 11th century, also in China, but it’s Johannes Gutenberg most people associate with the printing press, especially if the language they read in uses the 26 characters of the Roman alphabet.
From The Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed The World (Roaring Brook Press), written and illustrated by James Rumford, is the story of Gutenberg and the first book produced with moveable type and by a printing press. Rumford presents each step of the book-making process as a riddle and this just emphasises how complicated making a book was. Moveable type and the printing press allowed books to be created more quickly and in greater quantities, but it was still a labour-intensive exercise that required great skill and precision.
At the Royal Press, you get an idea of the process. I find manual typesetting the most mind-boggling of the various steps. A compositor has to assemble lines of moveable type on a composing stick, letter by letter, to form words and sentences. A page of type is tied together on to a metal tray called a galley and a few copies of the page are printed so that it can be checked for mistakes. (“Galley proof” is another term that has survived the computer age – we still call the initial printed copies of books and newspaper articles galleys!)
Type pieces are so tiny that I can’t imagine what it does to a compositor’s vision. However, after 56 years (and counting) with the printing company, the Royal Press’s 74-year-old Foong Yoke Chan seems to be still going strong.
Visitors to the Royal Press also get to see the linotype machines which allow text to be assembled line by line rather than arranged, by hand, letter by letter. Before the invention of this time- and labour-saving device, newspapers could not have more than eight pages because of the time it took to lay out a page of text for printing.
Of course, with digital printing, this is no longer a concern. However, manual typesetting and printing is still practised, mainly
The earliest printing method originated in China in the third century and used carved woodblocks to transfer text and images onto cloth and paper.
to produce limited edition books and stationery. It’s interesting that in its heyday, letterpress printing aimed not to leave a physical impression on the page, but now enthusiasts prefer that the type leaves its mark on the paper. I guess fashions evolve and trends change, and I am just happy that the Royal Press is making the effort to preserve this art form.
As for From The Good Mountain, it gives any young lover of books a glimpse into the fascinating world of book-arts and the history of the written word, and how books went from precious objects of privilege to mass-produced entertainment tools. Will digitally printed books be someday as much of a rarity as hand-pressed ones? As Rumford says, that is another story, for another age.