And yet, here are Cameron Moll and Bryce Knudson managing to impart all kinds of aura and ritual to the reproduction. The reproductions are weirdly more authentic than the original which is just a file with dubious forward-compatibility.
I enjoy this alchemy, made possible by the presence of easier reproduction techniques. It transmutes the time needed to make a letterpress work into painstaking labour when, at the moment of invention, it was labour-saving. Imagine the salespeople and inventors of these machines learning that their long term legacy would be assured by how difficult they are to use, compared to their displacing successors (yes, yes, I know there are special features of the resulting print that are unique to the process but the video is all about the process itself).
What I’m deeply curious about is what comes next. At what point will the techniques have morphed and changed to that point that lovingly submitting PDFs to be printed “by hand” on colour printer feels more authentic than whatever’s replaced it? I suppose we’re about due for dot-matrix nostalgia.
I think we’re already seeing some glimpses of that sentiment in essays like this one: I want to make things, not just glue things together.
Held in the hand, a typical cuneiform tablet is about the same weight and shape as an early mobile phone. Hold it as though you were going to text someone and you hold it the way the scribe did; a proverb had it that ‘a good scribe follows the mouth.’ Motions of the stylus made the tiny triangular indentations of cuneiform characters in the clay. The actions would have been much quicker and more precise, but otherwise rather like the pecks you make at a phone keypad.
Some tablets are of course larger. Gilgamesh, thousands of words long, is an epic in 12 tablets more than a foot high, and inscriptions carved in rock are more expansive still. But it is the small tablets with tiny writing that are the most tantalising objects in Babylon, Myth and Reality (at the British Museum until 15 March). Can one, through them, get beyond archaeological evidence and inference, bypass the fevered imagination of William Blake’s and John Martin’s Bible illustrations and hear the voice of a Mesopotamian Pepys?
Well, not exactly, but the range and character of what is written down give some idea of the texture of everyday life in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The majority of tablets may be the equivalent of office files – letters, legal documents, contracts, mortgages, lists of goods – but there are also messages addressed to the gods, some of them expressing indignance that good behaviour has not been rewarded. Astronomical observations are detailed and medical texts full of diagnostic descriptions. There are records of refurbishments: the kings, who had responsibility not just for religious ceremonies but for the maintenance of temple structures, celebrated their building works.
They told of the abbot Silvanus that he had a disciple in Scete named Marcus, and that he was of great obedience, and also a writer of the ancient script: and the old man loved him because of his obedience. He had also another eleven disciples, who were aggrieved that he loved him more than them. And when the old men in the neighborhood heard that the abbot loved him more than the rest, they took it ill. So one day the came to him: and the abbot Silvanus took them with him and went out of his cell, and began to knock at the cells of his disciples, one by one, saying, “Brother, come, I have need of thee.” And not one of them obeyed him. He came to Marcus’ cell and knocked saying, “Marcus.” And when he heard the old man’s voice he came straight outside, and the old man sent him on some errand. Then the abbot Silvanus said to the old men, “Where are the other brethren?” And he went into Marcus’ cell, and found a quaternion of manuscript which he had that moment begun, and was making thereon the letter O. And on hearing the old man’s voice, he had not stayed to sweep the pen full circle so as to finish and close the letter that was under his hand. And the old men said, “Truly, abbot, him whom thou lovest we love also, for God loveth him.”
In practical terms the ISO ruling now means that in future it should be easier to find the Eszett on computer keyboards and in programmes. But it remains to be seen how keyboard manufacturers will react. Other vulnerable European letters have come under threat in the internet era, such as the Scandinavian vowels æ, ø and å. However, official recognition for the Eszett should mean that it is protected, at least for the time being, and cannot be scrapped as it has been in Swiss German.
Kerstin Güthert, managing director of the Council for German Spelling Reform, said: “It’s up to the people to decide whether or not they will use it.”
Germany’s typographers, at least, are predicting its comeback and celebrating the Eszett’s new-found status.