Roy­ally im­pressed

A glimpse into the fas­ci­nat­ing world of book-arts and the his­tory of the writ­ten word.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS MONTHLY -

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.

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