Paper and Print Technology

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Paper and Print Technology

Sydney J. Shep

Although the novel is often considered a Western genre, South and East Asian literature was populated by many comparable antecedents in print, be they HISTORICAL romances, fictional narratives, extended short stories, or hybrid literary forms. In China, the rise of vernacular fiction from the fourteenth century paved the way for Hung-lou-meng (1791, Dream of the Red Chamber), attributed to Cao Xueqin. This DOMESTIC novel, with its enormous cast of characters and detailed observation of mid-eighteenth-century court life, loves, and society, is considered one of China's four great classical novels, along with Shuihu zhuan (1614, The Water Margin) and Sanguo yanyi (1552, Romance of the Three Kingdoms), by Luo Guanzhong, and Xiyou-ji (1592, Journey to the West), by Wu Cheng'en. It circulated privately in scribal form—a common practice—until 1791, when it was first printed using movable type.

Once the Chinese kanji script arrived in Japan and was naturalized, written literary production gained momentum. The classical novel of the early eleventh century, also considered the first modern novel, was Murasaki Shikibu's work Genji Monogatari (ca. 1010, The Tale of Genji), which competed for literary shelf space with Makura no SImageshi (ca. 1000, The Pillow Book), also by a court authoress, Sei ShImagenagon. By the Edo period (1603—1867), the importation of Chinese vernacular fiction influenced the work of Ihara Saikaku, whose racy novels of the 1680s set in the brothels, teahouses, and theaters of Tokyo's red-light district were complemented by ukiyo-e (floating world) woodblock prints (see fig. 1). The reopening of Japan to the West during the Meiji period (1868—1912) resulted in rapid and significant exposure to European literary practices and markets. During a relatively short period of time, Japanese writers began to write fluently and concurrently in prose styles of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, naturalism, and realism. A similar pattern occurred in China with the efflorescence of the modern novel during the late Qing dynasty (1895—1911). Novels were translated and exported to the West; writers such as Yasunari Kawabata and, later, Kazuo Ishiguro and Gao Xingjian, won prestigious international awards. The impact of the Cultural Revolution (1966—76) in China and the subsequent centralized control of print and digital media resulted in a thriving underground and domestic publishing industry and a surge in both novel writing and reading. Postwar Japan witnessed the development of the internationally significant graphic novel genres, manga and anime.


Figure 1 Ihara Saikaku, Koshoku ichidai otoko (1684, The Life of an Amorous Man), 8 vols., illus. Hishikawa Moronobu. The National Diet Library, WA9-10. Used with permission

Until and even after contact with the technological apparatus of the West, the production of Asian literature was a self-sufficient economy based on manuscript copying and book-block or xylographic printing and fed by centuries of papermaking expertise. The simplicity of equipment and materials fostered an almost unlimited capacity for cheap reprints and the ease of rebinding the softback, multivolume works extended their life in harsh tropical environments. The shape, size, and paperback form also engendered different reading habits as well as the construction of different reading spaces for the consumption of fiction. The complexities of Indic, Arabic, and East Asian scripts have always proved problematic for moveable type (see TYPOGRAPHY). The enormous number of characters required and the need for diacritical marks, combined with capital investment and production exigencies, often paled by comparison with the commercial efficiencies of the traditional manuscript and book-block economies. Western missionaries prioritized the printing of religious and educational works in the vernacular, and advocated for the production of printing types. Many secular works were printed with these types, although the popular print of nineteenth-century India, for example, frequently resorted to chromolithography to overcome the limitations of moveable type. Even the famous Bengali poet, novelist, musician, artist, and social reformer, Rabindranath Tagore, privileged the manuscript as the embodiment of spiritual and literary worth, and retained an ambivalent relationship to letterpress printing all his life.

The development of the novel in the West coincided with and was facilitated by profound changes in the technologies of book production. The industrialization of papermaking and printing processes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, coupled with the advent of new readers, new markets, changed legislative frameworks, and faster transport systems, paved the way for the efflorescence of the genre. The second phase of industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries broadened the global reach of this print form. Finally, the advent of digital technologies has thrust the novel into the domain of hypertext and multimedia, reshaping both its creators and readers.

Making Paper by Hand

Before the invention of the Fourdrinier papermaking machine and rotary machine presses, the novel was a luxury item manufactured in small editions for limited audiences, and priced well beyond a worker's average weekly wage. Whether available in one or two volumes, or the classic three-decker or three-volume form, its paper was handmade in single sheets, the type composed by hand from foundry type, the text printed on a two-pull wooden platen or single-pull iron handpress, and the final work bound by hand. These craft technologies and the traditions and institutional structures that surrounded them shaped the look, feel, and market for early novels. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, for example, first appeared in octavo format in 1719. The paper was rag-based, produced in laid sheets made by an English mill, and taxed per ream at the source. The physical traces of the mold and deckle appeared in the watermark and any uncut edges; the papermaker's characteristic “shake” could be detected in the variable thickness of the sheet. The text was composed letter-by-letter and space-by-space from upper and lower typecases by several compositors in W. Taylor's printshop at the Sign of the Ship in Paternoster Row, London, who deciphered and interpreted the manuscript hand, and worked with the pressman to pull galley proofs. Once corrected, the pages were imposed, locked up, and printed on the handpress, where they were worked off by the pressman and beater at a rate of 250 sheets per hour. The presswork alone for an edition of one thousand copies could take anywhere from two to three months to be completed on two presses working continuously. If sold folded rather than flat, the printed sheets were gathered and sewn into flimsy, paper-covered boards with a paste-on label—a temporary solution—awaiting the purchaser to commission his or her own bespoke binding. The finished article, with its leather, blind or gold tooling, edge-gilding, and armorial bookplate, would be read with paper knife in hand in a comfortable armchair near a sunny window or by a candle, and finally reside in a private library of considerable prestige and conspicuous value.

Mechanized Papermaking

The demands of an increasingly literate reading public meant that popular forms of print such as newspapers and the periodical press were at the forefront of technological change. A prototype papermaking machine was brought to England by its inventor, Nicolas-Louis Robert (1761—1828), and was patented in 1801. After some modifications by Bryan Donkin (1768—1855), a viable machine was installed at the Frogmore Mill (Hertfordshire) in 1804. Using a continuous web of woven wire, this Fourdrinier machine, named after the papermaking brothers who invested in the project, was connected at one end to a vat of continuously agitated furnish distributed onto the web, and at the other end, to a series of rollers for draining, pressing, and drying. By 1807, more paper could be produced in a day from this endless web than was possible in a one-vat hand paper mill. However, demand soon outstripped supply as linen rags required for the best quality papers were in short supply and alternative fibers suitable for mechanical production, particularly straw and esparto grass, became the focus of attention. Although wood-based papers would not be commercially produced until the end of the nineteenth century, the experimental work of Matthias Koop in 1800 laid the foundation for the second phase of paper industrialization. Cheap newsprint and paperback novels could not have been realized without the emergence of wood pulp, which guaranteed papers at once regular, reliable, and anonymous.

Printing Innovations

As paper production was being mechanized, so too was printing. Throughout the later eighteenth century, numerous attempts were made to retrofit existing wooden platen presses to operate with greater efficiency and ease. Charles Stanhope (1753—1816) worked with his engineers on a cast-iron handpress, hoping to increase the size of sheet which could be printed in one pull as well as the impression strength, evenness, and quality. The Stanhope Press went into production in 1800, followed quickly on both sides of the Atlantic by the Columbian and Albion, among others. However, these machines were expensive and still relied upon single sheets to be hand-fed and hand-pulled; they did not increase the speed of printing sufficiently to change the industrial landscape. Around 1810, a German émigré based in London, Friedrich Koenig, experimented with a steam-driven platen press and automatic inking mechanism. Soon he shifted his energies to the cylinder or rolling press more commonly used by copperplate engravers. In late 1814, The Times of London, which underwrote Koenig's invention, printed off 1,100 sheets per hour and announced a new era in newspaper production. Improvements thereafter resulted in the Applegarth vertical rotary printing machine with multiple feed stations and a fourfold increase in production. By 1850, The Times achieved a remarkable twelve thousand impressions per hour, increasing this figure to twenty thousand per hour eight years later using a ten-feeder horizontal rotary press developed by R. Hoe & Co. of New York. When paper duty was finally abolished in 1861, web-fed presses that printed on both sides of a continuous reel of paper were one of the crowning achievements of industrialization.

The irony attendant upon the invention of the power presses was that they remained predominantly the domain of the large newspaper corporations, unaffordable to the small printer with his limited capital, short print runs, and diverse product lines. Although some larger printing houses such as William Clowes Ltd. adopted steam presses in the 1830s, book printing was still primarily the province of the handpress up until mid-century, when the Wharfedale (1856) was introduced. However, the new power presses enabled publishers to rethink their production strategies, develop new advertising and distribution networks, and create new business models. Furthermore, the development of mechanical type-casting in America in 1838 made type more affordable and available for large projects. Refinements to the stereotyping process provided a welcome solution to the biggest hurdle in print production: typesetting. Until the invention of hot metal machines for composition setting such as the Linotype (1885; see fig 2) and the Monotype (1896), stereos enabled text to be handset once in metal, a mold made from plaster of Paris (1784), or later, papier-mâché or flong (1828—29), and any number of flat or curved plates cast on demand. Type was no longer redistributed, thus requiring a complete resetting for a new edition, or left standing awaiting the risky speculation of a future printing. Flongs could be stored indefinitely, brought out for casting when required, and did not tie up precious capital. Consequently, the single largest expenditure apart from paper was soon reduced, placing the notion of production inextricably linked to volatile consumer demand within easy reach of the printer. Furthermore, the portability of the lightweight flong molds resulted in texts circulating the globe through stereo exchange and lending networks, feeding the market for REPRINTS sustained by, amongst others, Harpers in New York, the Galignani Brothers in Paris, and Tauchnitz in Germany.


Figure 1 Linotype Blower, 1886. The world's first linecasting machine, the Blower was produced by Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854—99) in the U.S. The machine was later renamed “Linotype” (short for “Line of type”). Image courtesy of Linotype GmbH

Consequences for the Novel

Novels were the beneficiaries of these new technical developments driven by the newspaper and periodical press. Given the increasing speed and scale of production, plus opportunities for repurposing content as publishers moved to capture market share through serialization, part publication, and other commercial strategies, novels evolved into an exemplar of commodity culture. The works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alexandre Dumas, and Charles Dickens, for instance, gained greater international market penetration through serialization, dramatization, translation, and merchandise tie-ins. The production of editions suited to specific markets and new spaces of reading was also made possible by the industrialization of print. Lending libraries such as Mudie's (founded 1842) were both a driver sustaining artificially high pricing of the three-volume novel and a captive market for editions of the most recent popular novels. They also provided the impetus for the development of publishers' cloth, and case or library bindings to ensure maximum durability and longevity.

The railway and the concomitant development of commuter reading spawned the railway bookstall, and their owner-publishers, such as W. H. Smith in London (1848) or Louis Hachette in Paris (1853), controlled supply and drove demand. The railway novel or “yellowback” with its distinctive mustard-plaster, soft-cover binding was introduced in 1855, paving the way for the mass-produced paperbacks of the 1870s that led, in turn, to the Penguin publishing phenomenon established in 1935. The paperback format enabled the publisher Philipp Reclam in Leipzig, for example, to manufacture user-pay, coin-operated book dispensers to supply cheap, standard editions for readers in railway stations, hospitals, spas, and on board ships, thus bypassing the bookshop entirely and heralding a new kind of book-on-demand economy. The colonial edition enabled a hungry novel-reading public around the world to partake of the latest fiction at discount prices, in a climate of competitive wholesaling and asymmetrical copyright legislation, which controlled novelists, printers, publishers, booksellers, and their markets. In all of these examples, the economics of print and of publishers' design decisions affected availability and price; the gradual miniaturization, portability, and standardization of novels were linked to a reduction of price achieved through mechanized production methods, larger print runs, low production costs, and volume sales.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the industrialization of photography and lithography provided new opportunities for technological advancement in the printing industry. The offset press, developed by Ira Washington Rubel in 1903 and mass produced by the Harris Automatic Press Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, adapted lithographic principles and adopted various improvements in ink, paper, and plate manufacture for high-volume commercial printing. Since the 1950s, it has remained the printing press of choice for quality book printing and reprographics, facilitated by direct computer-to-plate technology. Digital presses cannot yet compete with offset presses in terms of scale or quality, but are quickly narrowing the gap. Phototypesetting or cold type, first introduced in the 1940s, replaced hot metal by the 1970s and, in turn, was rendered obsolete by digital type. The development of the personal computer, the font menu, and software programs for design, illustration, and desktop or on-line publishing has put the control of production and dissemination firmly within reach of the author.

Just as early novels such as Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759—67), with its marbled or black pages, or Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1748), l with its psychological typography, constitute a metanarrative of book production, so too do contemporary e-novels play with the bits and bytes of their material form. While hypertext fiction and cyber-novels do not rely on print and paper, they employ many comparable readerly strategies and paratextual cues to fashion a cyberworld where the reader is now a fully immersive, multimedia participant, if not equal partner, a multimodal writer. At the same time as the e-book and internet permeate our culture, the book object remains an important constituent element. Printed novels in octavo format with pseudo-deckle or uncut edges join expensive hardbacks with faux embossing and tooling. Reading clubs abound, airport bookshops market prizewinning novels in multiple languages and filmic covers, and lending libraries purvey the latest bestsellers. Novels are repurposed into films, graphic novels, stage plays, musicals, and computer games. The markers of the chronological development of the novel can now be seen existing simultaneously in the contemporary world.

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Authorship, Editing, Illustrated Novel, Publishing, Reviewing.


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