Reasonable Words: The Linotype

Just finished Keith Houston’s informative and droll Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, a book teeming with a lot of news about such creatures as the pilcrow, interrobang, octothorpe, and the surprisingly complicated history of the hyphen.

This last is of course related to the rules for word division, which once upon a time, long before computer word processing programs relieved us from this task, writers (even mere typers, like myself) were supposed to master. I took typing in high school and I doubt ever correctly applied the 10 rules for word hyphenation–not sure I even learned them.

While illuminating the hyphen, Houston takes us on a side trip to the Linotype and Monotype machines, nearly mythic to me–as both my parents started in journalism in the era of hot type. These wildly complicated contraptions automated the setting of type, but they still left hyphenation up to the operators. This was least of their worries, as Houston relates:

A Linotype machine at the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, MA.

A Linotype machine at the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, MA.

“For all the speed gained over hand composition, there were dangers inherent in the machines that required their users to work beside bubbling crucibles of molten lead. The joy of mechanically setting line after line o’ type came with the added frisson that a “squirt” might occur at any time: any detritus caught between two adjacent Linotype matrices would allow molten type metal to jet through the gap. And aside from the immediate dangers of seared flesh, operators of both Linotype and Monotypes ran the more insidious risk of poisoning from the (highly flammable) benzene used to clean matrices, the natural gas that some machines burned to melt the type metal, and the fumes emitted by the molten type metal itself.”








Makes my regular carping about the annoyances of WordPress seem a little silly! Updating versions has not, as yet, required me to dodge squirts of molten lead, but God knows what they are thinking up for the next release.

BTW, Houston has a blog on the same topic–also charming, but somehow this topic seems to really twinkle in book form.

A little song: Cherkassky plays the Albeniz-Godowsky Tango

tangoThis little Tango by Isaac Albeniz was something I discovered as a kid–it is one of the first pieces  in “59 Piano Solos You Love to Play,” and I strummed through it many times. But a few years back, I discovered that the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky made an arrangement that refracted it through something that almost seemed bi-tonal. The main tune is there, but there are other voices murmuring away in other rooms, a wonderful effect.

There are many fetching performances, but Shura Cherkassky’s may be the best.


Poetic Words: The Adirondacks

Can’t resist one more shot from our Adirondack weekend:

Blue Mountain Lake, Labor Day weekend 2014.

Blue Mountain Lake, Labor Day weekend 2014.

Adirondacks: Late Summer 1948

The spruce are dense above the lake.
A thick, gray driftwood, sharp and bent,
Margins the shore with heavy lines.
The overhanging aspens shake
Their dry, deciduous sediment
Into the cool, reflected pines.

There is a limit here of tree
And water: form has gained its end,
Lost in the continual reflection.
Through shade the glossy visions flee
And in a darker calm distend
Downward in shadowy perfection.

Across the lake at evening, wild
And distant, like unhallowed ghosts,
The loons converse. Rotten and dank,
The logs jut rudely: split and piled
They slant into the dusk like posts
Unearthed and cast against the bank.

W. Wesley Trimpi

Surprising Words: Fact Checking in Books

When I was a news researcher, it was surprising to me that you were allowed to cite a fact previously reported in our own pages to resolve a query. But at least the effort to get things right was serious; if this Atlantic piece is correct, book publishers don’t bother now, and never really did.

One of the most notorious and colorful publishing frauds. One quibble with the Atlantic piece...fact-checking and fraud detection are distinct tasks. As is rooting out bias. Most  editorial "gatekeepers," the few that are left, don't attempt all three.

One of the most notorious and colorful publishing frauds. One quibble with the Atlantic piece…fact-checking and fraud detection are distinct tasks. As is rooting out bias. Most editorial “gatekeepers,” the few that are left, don’t attempt all three.

“When I was working on my book, I did an anecdotal survey asking people: Between books, magazines, and newspapers, which do you think has the most fact-checking?” explained Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, a book on media accuracy, and founder of a blog by the same name. Almost inevitably, the people Silverman spoke with guessed books.

“A lot of readers have the perception that when something arrives as a book, it’s gone through a more rigorous fact-checking process than a magazine or a newspaper or a website, and that’s simply not that case,” Silverman said. He attributes this in part to the physical nature of a book: Its ink and weight imbue it with a sense of significance unlike that of other mediums.Fact-checking dates back to the founding of Time in 1923, and has a strong

tradition at places like Mother Jones and The New Yorker. (The Atlantic checks every article in print.) But it’s becoming less and less common even in the magazine world. Silverman suggests this is in part due to the Internet and the drive for quick content production. “Fact-checkers don’t increase content production,” he said. “Arguably, they slow it.”

What many readers don’t realize is that fact-checking has never been standard practice in the book-publishing world at all.

Commonplace Book: E.B. White

Back from a Labor Day weekend in the Adirondacks (highly recommended, particularly including a little time on the water, and the Adirondack Museum).  A selection from lots of photos I took, including–that deep blue one–the view from the porch of our lodge looking out onto Blue Mountain Lake on a late summer evening.

To complete it, a bit from E.B. White’s 1941 essay, “Once More to the Lake.” He was talking about Maine, but the spirit is the same. 


Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, the little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp and the paths leading back to the outhouses and the can of lime for sprinkling, and at the souvenir counters at the store the miniature birch-bark canoes and the post cards that showed things looking a little better than they looked. This was the American family at play, escaping the city heat, wondering whether the newcomers at the camp at the head of the cove were “common” or “nice,” wondering whether it was true that the people who drove up for Sunday dinner at the farmhouse were turned away because there wasn’t enough chicken.

Perhaps he seems a bit-old fashioned, even Norman Rockwell-esque now, but it’s hard to overestimate what an influence White’s prose had over Americans who tried to write a sentence in English in my generation.  He’s still a lodestone to me.

Reasonable Words: Commonplace Book

A few nice bits encountered in this week’s reading:

First, the opening bit from Jorge Luis Borges “This Craft of Verse” (the book form of his Norton Lectures on poetry from 1967-68, once thought lost, but lovingly transcribed from audio tapes and published by Harvard University Press).

“1. The Riddle of Poetry

At the outset, I would like to give you fair warning of what to expect–or rather, what not to expect–from me.  I find that I have made a slip in the very title of my first lecture. The title is, if we are not mistaken, “The Riddle of Poetry,” and the stress of course is on the first word, “riddle.” So you may think the riddle is all-important. Or, what might be still worse, you may think I have deluded myself into believing that I have somehow discovered the true reading of the riddle. The truth is that I have no revelations to offer. I have spent my life reading, analyzing, writing (or trying my hand at writing), and enjoying. I have found the last to be the most important thing of all. “Drinking in” poetry, I have come to no final conclusion about it. Indeed, Every time I am faced with a blank page, I feel that I have to rediscover literature for myself. But the past is of no avail whatever to me. So, as I have said, I have only my perplexities to offer you. I am nearing seventy. I have given the major part of my life to literature and I can offer you only doubts.”

Echos of Mark Strand‘s

“There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.”

If Borges thought he was “trying his hand at writing,” there’s not much hope for the rest of us.


and a great lead to James Wade’s TLS review of Lawrence Warner’s THE MYTH OF PIERS PLOWMAN, a sort of bibliographic true-crime thriller about the brouhaha over medieval text Piers Plowman and its questionable provenance.


If Piers Plowman offers a vision of human life in its entirety – a “fair feeld ful of folk” – Lawrence Warner’s study The Myth of Piers Plowman veers towards humanity’s rougher edges: insane scholars, hapless librarians, drunk students, depressed antiquarians and tyrannical monarchs, not to mention rebels, prostitutes, con men, forgers, heretics and, perhaps worst of all, very dull academics.


Warner assembles this motley crew of rogues and oddballs to serve up a rollicking tale of how an entire field of study came to be created, or rather, fabricated. This latter term is one Warner shies away from in the book’s subtitle, but its range of connotations is fundamental to his understanding of archive formation. When it comes to the long history of amassing the raw material of “Langland Studies” or “Piers Plowman Studies”, a history this book traces (or fabricates), it turns out to be neither possible nor necessarily productive to always distinguish between those who created, those who copied, those who corrected and those who just made things up.


Turns out life (or at least literary life) is more like Borges than perhaps even he suspected.

“Drunk history” is an internet meme (even a TV show), but drunk bibliographic collation? Could be the next big thing…


A page of a Piers Plowman manuscript from the British Library's site. Love those pilcrows!

A page of a Piers Plowman manuscript from the British Library’s site. Love those pilcrows!

Reasonable Words: Poetry

Today a poem by David Slavitt, a member of the “100 Club” and a writer with a wide range (from Latin translations to potboiler best-sellers) and impish sense of humor.


A tryma is a nutlike drupe.
No one in your playground is likely to respond
to such an observation in any reasonable way, but
you can always explain that a drupe has a single endocarp,
which is true but not, perhaps, helpful.

A pneuma is, by extension, a breathlike trope?
That, we may agree, would be horsing around, but
a drupelet, which is a small drupe, as, for example the pulpy grain of the blackberry,
would have, logically, an endocarplet.
When it rains, as it may, from time to time,
I can imagine you running through the meadow exclaiming,
“Ah, see the droplets on the drupelets!”

You will be an exquisite child,
or, rather, are already but you will proclaim it
in such a way as to defy the world.
And will they call you on the carplet?
Defy them, defy them.

The trauma of the tryma
is with us always, as are the poor
in spirit, who will stare at you blankly
on in resentment ask,
“Wha’? Who?”
Answer them smartly and tell them
the wahoo is a kind of Euonymous
(which is also a good name)
with arillate seeds.
Tell them your grandfather said so.

If that doesn’t work, and it won’t, you can take some comfort
from knowing that the false aril originates
from the orifice instead of the stalk of an ovule,
as in the mace of the nutmeg, which is an arillode.

It follows, I suppose, that a true aril is a false arillode,
although people seldom say so,
but never let that stop you.

David R. Slavitt

John Dunstall Walnuts and Hazelnuts 1666