Friday, September 12, 2014
Submitted by Gary Frost
There can be confusion regarding description of paper books; the given book needs description of how it was made as well as how it appears now and either perspective can unfairly dominate. Makers best describe their own work, but, perhaps, they cannot. Papermakers, printers and bookbinders can also prefer their own exclusive explanations. Bibliographers and book conservators can bring the description up to date but some estimation will be needed for missing information.
Book imposition and format provide a good example of this descriptive challenge. Imposition, or the print shop choice of paper dimension and arrangements of type on the press bed are decisions of makers alone. Format conveys cutting and folding sequences for assembly of the book gatherings. The formats have traditional names such as folio, quarto, octavo or various other explanations such as quarto in six from sheet and a half. A format designation can be assigned during examination of a book in-hand. But format alone that will not well describe the book makeup.
If you wish a tutorial on identification method of book imposition and format you will not be disappointed. Two admirable narrations are the description of imposition by Gabriel Rummons and description of format by Thomas Tanselle. Gabriel, the printer, describes print shop methods and Thomas the bibliographer, describes the format description methods. Both are aware of each other’s practice and perspectives. Still there is a curious feeling of difference in perspectives of these two narrative types.
Let’s relate the knowledge presented by Gabriel and Thomas and, at the same time, also examine the difference of their perspectives. Imposition and format are complements of page assembly method and ultimately they reflect a complex of expedients needed to convey book content in a physical object. Imposition and format comprise a practical origami constrained by decisive, economic choices of a sheet dimension and production management. Practicality must also follow implications of font size, line length and number of lines per page. Such reality will dominate all book production from the beginning to the present.
In most paper book production the cost of paper directly determines imprint investment and risk. In the hand sheet era “Paper could claim over two-thirds of the total production costs, and in some cases three quarters of cost.” Printing paper was also premium stock and each sheet would need to count, run through and, ultimately, fold to full use without waste. Print shop masters knew all the options of imposition and format choice and used these for greatest expedition and expedience and error avoidance. Book designers, compositors and pressmen knew accuracy of every lock-up and every move. Such focus should also convey to description of the products of such work.
Retuning to description, distractions and displacements are not needed! Features such as laid pattern orientation, commercial sizes of sheets, grain direction, or options of self-backing impositions or type array of pages can obscure the start of a descriptive narrative of imposition and format. Neither is the number of folds of an imposition or the final dimension of the page alone a sufficient descriptor.
We should consider description of the relation of the various features. I would offer that book shape can be a good starting point. A strange, but handy reference here are the photo format shapes or their aspect ratios, especially the cut film sizes of 4 x 5 and 5 x 7. These two happened to exemplify the proportions of two-fold quarto and three-fold octavo. They can also represent the general proportion of paper sheets. They and other photo shapes such as the 2 ¼” square or the 35 millimeter frame of an elongated rectangle can also help as concept templates.
General shapes of various books are suggested here. The squat shape of the parchment book, derived from a quartered skin, is reflected by the 4 x 5 photo proportion. A more elongated rectangle of 5 x 7 is an echo of the ergonomic shape of the hand paper mold and later conventions of cut machine-made paper are echoed by a 35 mm frame. Even the extreme shape of a half-square of the papyrus book is suggesting the fold of a square, 2 ¼-like, sheet.
Formulations of paper shape options are memorized in print shops. There is the “little-me” that any starting sheet proportion will be proportional to any ¼ cut sheet derived from it. This will then enable exact proportion smaller gatherings. Options of a one-third proportion cut from a sheet can enable strange elongated or squat book shapes or, perhaps, stocks from one-third cutting can be allocated to different books altogether.
Shape, meaning page proportion or aspect ratio, can also suggest bookbinding conventions. There we need to remember that the head to tail height represents a double trim while the width is only diminished by a single foredge trim. Another factor of 3-D book product shape is book thickness. Letterpress monographs range from a single gathering to almost one hundred gatherings in thickness. Blank and ruled paper stationery binding, by contrast, will feature a standard number of gatherings, including a consistent number of gatherings in the earliest long-stitch books. Finally, book shape is itself optimized for various handling and manipulation actions and this is ultimately the most relevant feature for the reader. The reader is at work after the process of imposition and format decisions that define a physical book. On opening and closing actions of reading the infinite possibilities of three-dimensional book shapes are revealed. The paper book is a complex product.
 Rummonds, Richard-Gabriel, Nineteenth-Century Printing Practices and the Iron Handpress, vol.1, Chapter Eight, Imposition, Oak Knoll Press, 2004.
 Tanselle, G. Thomas, “The Concept of Format”, Studies in Bibliography, Bibliographic Society of the University of Virginia, vol.53(2000), p.67-115.
 Raven, James, The Business of Books, Yale University Press, 2007, p.50.