Nicolas Jenson

Nicolas Jenson

The mechanized printing press and movable type were such radically different new technologies that printers had to soothe and reassure their customers by making their books’ text look like old-fashioned calligraphy. The metal letters mimicked the way letters are created by a pen or brush. It would take a bit of time before a typefounder said, “Oh, the heck with it” and finally designed a typeface that was meant to be printed on a printing press. No more phony hey-this-looks-like-it-just-rolled-out-of-the-scriptorium fancy-pants calligraphy.

That happened in ad 1470 and the type designer was Nicolas Jenson (zhen-SŌN). He was a Frenchman living in Italy.

Here’s a site with his beautiful type designs. You can download the typeface and there’s even a box where you can keystroke in your name or a phrase and see what it looks like a la Jenson. https://www.dafont.com/1470jenson.font

You can get Jenson’s font from these guys, too. Image credit: https://fontmeme.com/fonts/1470-jenson-font/

Jenson’s type design is inspired by old Roman majuscules for the capital letters. His lowercase letters are sorta-kinda inspired by uncial minuscules (notice Jenson’s lowercase u doesn’t look like a v). We’ll be calling capital letters ‘uppercase’ and little letters ‘lowercase’ now because that’s where they are kept in a job drawer.

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This isn’t what I’m used to


When digital watches first came out, some of them had a digitally-animated fake-analogue display. That style of watch had images of hour- and minute-hands that appeared to sweep around its face. People weren’t ready to read numbers to know the time. They needed a few years to get used to the new way of doing things.

Back when we were talking about Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton, you could see that they tried to make their books look like they were hand-written by a bunch of scribes.

A rare sighting of scribes in the field

What is the collective noun for scribes? Best answer wins a sketch. https://readable.com/blog/a-murder-of-crows-and-other-odd-collective-nouns/

https://www.watchuseek.com/threads/watches-with-a-digital-display-that-mimic-the-hour-hands-of-a-non-digital-analogue-watch.4744371/

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Baby books


Books from these early days are called incunabula. I love this word. Incunabulum is the singular form. It’s a Latin word that literally means ‘swaddling clothes,’ what they used to wrap newborn babies in. Think of a baby in a cradle or a crib. I think the swaddling clothes or the cradle are supposed to be the early printing business. The baby is the book. Book production in its infancy. Incunabula were the cradle of book-printing, like the Tigris-Euphrates valley is the cradle of Western Civilization, or Olduvai Gorge is the cradle of human evolution, or Massachusetts is the cradle of marshmallow and peanut butter sandwiches.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/incunabulum
https://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-inc1.htm
Do they still make this stuff? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluffernutter
Here is a timeline of early printing: https://www.prepressure.com/printing/history/1400-1499
https://www.ndl.go.jp/incunabula/e/chapter3/index.html

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Folios and quartos



Back in the early days of printing and paper manufacturing, there weren’t standard sizes yet. On the other hand, they did have standard names for a book’s format:
A press sheet folded in half was called a folio. You get 2 leaves or 4 pages.
If you folded the press sheet again, you get a quarto—4 leaves or 8 pages. It’s half as big as a folio.
If you folded the press sheet one more time, you get an octavo—8 leaves or 16 pages. It’s one-fourth as big as a folio.


Of course you can keep folding, at least until you get so many pages the paper won’t bend anymore. These formats get called duodecimo, sextodecimo, octodecimo…

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Pages & leaves

No, not that kind of a leaf

A page is one side of a piece of paper in a book.
A leaf is a piece of paper in a book. It has 2 sides; that’s 2 pages. There’s an old, old saying: to “turn over a new leaf.” It means you’re putting your bad old past behind you and starting fresh with a better attitude. It’s like your life is a book.

I turned over a new leaf a few years ago. To be honest, I turned over a new leaf a bunch of times. This last leaf I hope I got right.

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Format

So those early vernacular writers shaped their languages. In a similar way, the early printers and paper manufacturers shaped what we think of as a book. How big is a book? How many pages? How do you organize the information printed inside?

When this book gets printed it will be about 9” x 12”. It will have 32 pages plus the cover. Thirty-two is the usual number of pages for a kids’ book. Why? Because of the size of the press sheet—the piece of paper that gets run through a modern 4-color printing press. You can fit 8 pages onto each side of a press sheet. Two sides equal 16 pages. Sixteen is too few pages to tell a story, so kids’ books are 2 of these press sheets—32 pages total. There will be a title page and a page for copyright/dedication and other information. The rest will be lousy gags and badly-drawn cartoons and history. This is called the format of a book.

https://writersrumpus.com/2013/09/24/why-thirty-two-pages/

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The first one gets to choose


It was the combination of the Humanist movement/turning away from Latin for literature and the invention of moveable type & the mechanized screw-pressure printing press that made these books available to regular shmoes. Faster production = more books = books are less expensive. Gutenberg’s Bible was less expensive but it didn’t make him rich because so few people could read and also understand Latin—but people sure would learn to read when books were printed in their own language.

Those first vernacular writers set the tone for their languages’ usage. Chaucer, Mallory, Dante and Luther had huge influence in shaping modern English, Italian and German simply because they were the first to write in those languages. They made choices about spelling and grammar and syntax (how words are used in a sentence) that became standard. Written language is more or less permanent and it gets scrutinized way more than spoken language. In spoken language we let small mistakes pass without bothering too much about it. Make a grammatical mistake on a printed page? That’s a problem. Even on social media—which sets a low bar for spelling & grammar—you notice when a writer doesn’t understand how his language works.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/syntax

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Mucho mejor

Much better. I made Rosinantes just a little bit bigger—115%. It made all the difference.

Don Quixote

What Picasso might have created if he’d learned how to draw. I have to admit I may have made Rosinantes too small. I’ll fix that when I paint him.

We did it! We slogged through every first piece of vernacular Western literature (written in the author’s own language rather than Latin)—at least all the ones I can think of. German, English, Italian, French, Spanish. Chivalry and knights in shining armor sure was a popular subject. It’s as if: even as writers were moving everyone into a more modern age they needed to fondly look back and say so-long to the Middle Ages.

Spanish author Miguel Cervantes (mee-GEL sair-VAHN-tez) was having none of that. It was the late 1500s, the Middle Ages were over and their foolishnesses needed to be lampooned. In his book, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha), the doddering old gentleman Don Quixote (DON kee-HO-tay) is obsessed day and night with reading those poems of chivalry and knights and their mighty deeds—to the point where his brain dries out. It’s cooked. Don Quixote loses his marbles; he becomes demented. Don Quixote gets the idea he should put on an old suit of armor he finds in a barn and become a knight-errant to restore honor to Spain. He talks a local peasant, Sancho Panza, into being his squire by promising him a parcel of real estate. The Don chooses as his steed a moth-eaten, played-out scrawny old horse named Rosinantes. As a nod to courtly love, he fixates on a local girl he calls Dulcinea—but she has no idea that she’s being honored this way.

Don Quixote and Sancho go adventuring across the countryside, questing for wrongs to be righted and monsters to vanquish. In the book’s most famous scene, Don Quixote (whose eyesight isn’t so good) mistakes a windmill for an ogre and charges at it with his lance. He gets caught up in the windmill’s vanes and has to be untangled. In nearly every other adventure, Don Quixote and Sancho get beat up by whomever they encounter.

Don Quixote is considered to be the first modern novel (a book-length work of fiction). Cervantes intended to move us out of the past into modernity, and he sure did. One bit of pure writing genius: Don Quixote speaks Old Spanish while the other characters speak modern Spanish. For us English speakers, imagine a modern novel’s character speaking like Chaucer or Shakespeare. Cervantes’ readers understood Don Quixote’s dialogue but he sounds antique and out-of-step.*

* In fact, Aldous Huxley used this gag in Brave New World to give us information about a character—https://www.litcharts.com/lit/brave-new-world/chapter-7

Wikipedia has a comprehensive entry for Don Quixote, including a summary of the story:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Quixote
Look! You can get a poster of the title page of the 1605 edition of Don Quixote: https://www.amazon.com/Quixote-Ntitle-Cervantes-Published-Valencia/dp/B07C4K5LDY/ref=asc_df_B07C4K5LDY/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=527702999903&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=9503647619533183764&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9005111&hvtargid=pla-1401775165677&psc=1
https://www.biography.com/writer/miguel-de-cervantes
And here’s Peter O’Toole in the musical Man of La Mancha. In this scene, Cervantes is in prison, entertaining his fellow prisoners. In real life he’d been imprisoned twice, the first stretch for 5 years as a guest of the Turks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH9nDlBr3b4
You can visit Don Quixote’s windmills—https://www.awayn.com/listing/all_listings/consuegra-spain-consuegra-the-windmills-of-don-quixote-hiking-trip/

Hey, whadayaknow—Sophia Loren’s in this movie, too! She’s Dulcinea, who maybe wasn’t so unaware of being treated like a lady. I know, it’s hokey, but I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42y15BYusmA&t=209s

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A tiny little sermonette from your old Uncle John


I suppose a cynic might say these stories of knighthood and chivalry were propaganda—they glorified the feudal system by trumpeting the goodness of the upper class. True enough. But the stories also inspired better behavior from their readers, which wasn’t a bad thing. Stories help us define ourselves. We all need heroes who set an example. A code of honor is a necessary element of civilization. It’s a social contract. If you can’t count on other people to behave within a common set of rules—to behave morally—a civilization won’t last very long.

A representative republic is impossible if its citizens don’t share a moral code. I mean ALL its citizens. Without the social contract there’s chaos and thievery and violence, which invites an overbearing, armed-to-the-teeth government to step in and regulate everybody. In other words, we’d go back to feudalism. That’s not good, right? It means we’d go back to being serfs. Chivalry and honor are not trifles.

propaganda noun: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
https://www.worldhistory.org/Medieval_Chivalry/
https://www.facinghistory.org/nobigotry/readings/alexis-de-tocqueville-democracy-and-religion

One of my favorite movies is My Favorite Year. There’s a scene where swashbuckling-hero-movie-actor Alan Swann tells young Benjy Stone that he (Swann) is really only flesh-and-blood, life-sized. Benjy replies he has no use for a life-sized Alan Swann. He needs his Alan Swanns as big as he can get them. He needs heroes. Who doesn’t?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioyAJUCTCkQ

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