August 30, 2012

Letterpress in Literature

“Bespoke was a Victorian house on a hill, a block long and replete with wings, turrets, atria, and breezy verandas. Hackworth was not senior enough to merit a turret or a balcony, but he did have a view into a garden where gardenia and boxwood grew. Sitting at his desk, he could not see the garden, but he could smell it, especially when the wind blew in from the sea.

Runcible was sitting on his desk in the form of a stack of papers, most of them signed JOHN PERCIVAL HACKWORTH. He unfolded Cotton’s document. It was still running the little industrial cartoon. Cotton had clearly enjoyed himself. No one ever got fired for going with enhanced photorealism, but Hackworth’s own signature look was lifted from nineteenth-century patent applications: black on white, shades of gray implied with nearly microscopic cross-hatching, old-fashioned letterpress font a little rough around the edges. It drove clients wild—they always wanted to blow up the diagrams on their drawing-room mediatrons. Cotton got it. He’d done his diagram in the same style, and so his nanotechnological battery chugged away on the page looking much like the gear train of an Edwardian dreadnought.” 

—from The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (1995) by Neal Stephenson

Letterpress purists would say this isn't how letterpress should look. If the letters are a little rough around the edges, there may be too much ink, or the paper is textured but not soft enough to allow the letter edges to print completely. But now (and in Diamond Age's steampunk-nanotechnological future) these "defects" have become such a signature that this is what people expect.

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