Bookmarking “imposition” – the craft of learning by doing

Wynken de Worde’s printer’s device.

Under the blog name “Wynken de Worde,” Sarah Werner  writes about books, early modern culture, and those of us who may be postmodern readers — when she is not preparing the syllabus for her course at the Folger Shakespeare Library.   Wynken (not related to Blynken or Nod) was the primary assistant to William Caxton the first printer of English-language books — Malory’s Morte d’Arthur,  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and The Golden Legend.

If Sarah Werner channels Wynken de Worde in her classroom as well as she does through her website, her students are to be envied.  She makes what she writes tangible, palpable, haptic. Three brief examples, the last of which prompts this bookmark:

Imposition is “the arranging of pages in a chase [a steel or iron frame for holding them tightly for the letterpress] in a particular sequence . . .  so that when folded the printed pages will be in consecutive order.”  Glaister, Encyclopedia of the Book (2001).  But the earliest books did not have page numbers, so how were old Bill and Wynk to know which to place where?   Here’s Werner:

Lerner’s newsbook ready for folding.

Above is a numbered example of the same newsbook that I used as an image in my last post. The red numbers are page numbers: folded in the right way, you’d get an 8-page booklet in the order indicated. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the actual news sheet doesn’t have page numbers. Instead, there are signatures: at the bottom of the first page is a tiny, blotted “L”; at the bottom of the 5th page is a tiny “L3″ (the “L2″ has been cut off at some point when the page was trimmed). These are signature marks that count off by leaves. What’s a leaf, you ask? It’s a physical unit of paper: when you turn the page in a book, you are actually turning a leaf of paper. Early modern printers would have thought in terms of sheets and leaves, not pages, when they were figuring out how to print a work. Depending on the imposition (how the text is laid out on the sheet), you could end up with different numbers of leaves: 1, 2, 4, 8, 12, 16, 24.  A quarto imposition results in a sheet of paper being turned into 4 leaves; there are 2 pages to each leaf (a recto side and a verso side), so there are 8 pages in all. The blue letters and numbers show the signatures. One thing that throws off beginners is understanding how recto and verso relate to each other.  They do not mean right and left but front and back.

Providing a downloadable PDF with which to follow along, Werner walks the reader through the exercise and proves her point:  “it’s a handy way to understand and demonstrate to others the general principle of early modern format: multiple pages are printed onto a single sheet in the correct order so that when folded, they appear sequentially.”

The second example of the pedagogically palpable or the palpably pedagogic comes in the same posting:

“When you’re done, you can try folding it into a tiny little pressman’s cap, following the instructions that appear in this lovely piece, “The Newspaper Man is Defunct,” from The Cape Cod today.”

That bit of fun was two years ago.  The brilliance is undiminished today; if anything it’s brighter.   For this year’s course, Werner is handing out her syllabus in unpaginated quarto format.  To figure out the syllabus, the students have to fold the imposition correctly!  Try it yourself and grasp the meaning of the “book arts.”

Ah, the books arts.  Imposition.  The dying arts?  You need look no further than the end of your Proboscis to see that that is not true.   Proboscis is a London-based non-profit studio that commissions and facilitates new works and publications, some of which can be found in the DIFFUSION library.

DIFFUSION ebooks are hybrid digital/material publications. They bring together the “tactile pleasures of tangible objects with the ease of sharing via digital media.”    Shareable paper books, free to download as PDFs, print and make up,  DIFFUSION eBooks “can be shared electronically or as material objects – scanned, photocopied, emailed or posted. The eBooks bridge analogue and digital media by taking the reader away from the computer screen and engaging them with the handmade.”

And just a bit further along the continuum is Francisca Prieto, also in London. Inspired by the serio-comical poet Nicanor Parra’s “antipoems,”  Prieto offers up The ANTIBOOK.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. COPYRIGHT © FRANCISCA PRIETO 2001-2012

The reader must fold the pages of the book (20.5 x 10.5cm) to form the icosahedron (15 x 17 x 19cm) in order to read Parra’s antipoems in order.

Whether Prieto’s ANTIBOOK or the DIFFUSION ebooks are book, art, both or neither, they and Wynken de Worde make us think with our hands as well as our minds about what can be done with the form and concept of the book.  And that makes the concept of imposition worth a bookmark.

PS: “Books On Books” acknowledges David Pearson’s Books as History (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 2008 and 2011), p. 75, for the inspiration of the wording of the conclusion here.

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