Lab #4 Prompt

Today we use the word “compose” as a synonym for writing. Think of First-Year Composition courses, for example, which instruct undergraduates how to research and write academic arguments. Historically, however, writing and composing were distinct processes. While writing named the creative art of crafting sentences of prose or lines of poetry, composition named the technical craft of assembling movable type for printing on a press. Writing happened in the mind, while composition happened in metal and wood.

Recalling experiences as a young apprentice to a Philadelphia printer in his autobiography, for example, Benjamin Franklin clearly distinguishes between writing and composition:

Keimer’s printing-house, I found, consisted of an old shatter’d press, and one small, worn-out font of English, which he was then using himself, composing an Elegy on Aquilla Rose, before mentioned, an ingenious young man, of excellent character, much respected in the town, clerk of the Assembly, and a pretty poet. Keimer made verses too, but very indifferently. He could not be said to write them, for his manner was to compose them in the types directly out of his head. So there being no copy, but one pair of cases, and the Elegy likely to require all the letter, no one could help him. (My emphasis)

When Franklin notes that there was “no copy,” he means there was no manuscript of the poem from which Keimer was setting the type—no “writing”—and instead, Keimer was creating the poem directly in type as he set.

The Lab Assignment

This week you will be composing a text that we will print in a future lab. Choose the first few lines of your favorite piece of pop culture: this could be a song, a poem, a book, a tv show, or even a meme. It should require at least 6-8 lines when composed. You will set this in type using one of the suggested fonts (or another font, if you talk to me about it in advance). For this lab, we will all use the same length of leading—which determined the length of line—to make it easier for us to switch between prints when the time comes. We will be printing these cultural snippets on postcards.

If you missed any details during my demonstration of composition, this series of videos I made when I was running Huskiana Letterpress provide a close, hands-focused tutorial. In particular, this video about composition is pertinent to this week.

The Lab Report

Your lab report this week should, as always, consider both the process of composition you experienced this week, and reflect on how that embodied experience deepened, complemented, or even challenged what you learned through our assigned media. Use this as a launching point for thinking about the materiality of print culture. How does recognizing text as composed—quite literally—of material letter sorts, spaces, and leading refigure our view of print culture? How does this form of textual production and labor relate to other modes we have studied? And how might it reshape our understanding of the artifacts produced through these media? Finally, how might this material understanding of text shape projects that digitize and/or computationally analyze print culture artifacts?