dot-font: Preserving Ancient Wisdom with Age-Old Printing Techniques

Parmenides of Elea doesn’t get a lot of press these days. He was a 6th century BC Greek philosopher, one of what we call the pre-Socratics (he flourished a century and a half before Socrates), and his surviving work is a collection of fragments of his single long poem. (Or it might have been a medium-size poem. Since all we have are fragments, how can we know?) The subject of his poem isn’t adventure or war or tragic love; it’s the fundamental question of being and non-being.

Berkeley printer and publisher Peter Rutledge Koch decided several years ago that Parmenides was worthy of a new edition. (Koch specializes in ambitious hand-printed books and digital/letterpress collaborations; a taste of his serious but un-solemn approach might be seen in the title of the catalog of his work published in 1995 by the New York and San Francisco public libraries: “Peter Koch Printer, Surrealist Cowboys, Maverick Poets and Pre-Socratic Philosophers.”) He commissioned poet/typographer Robert Bringhurst to make a new translation, into idiomatic North American English, and asked first stonecutter Christopher Stinehour and then punchcutter Dan Carr to create a wholly new Greek typeface for the project — in metal, for hand setting.

The resulting book, with English and Greek text on facing pages, will be a monument of scholarship and booksmanship, but it has yet to see the light of day. What did burst onto the scene last Sunday and Monday in San Francisco, at the Koret Auditorium in the main San Francisco Public Library, was a symposium, a presentation by the collaborators, called “The Parmenides Project: The Hand & the Computer in an Early Twenty-first Century Book.”

Peter Koch introduced the event and acted as master of ceremonies for the four talks and single reading spread over a day and a half in downtown San Francisco. On Sunday, Koch gave an introduction to the whole project, followed by Christopher Stinehour on the art of cutting letters in stone and drawing on the computer. The next day, Robert Bringhurst explained the context of Parmenides and the language in which he wrote (including the sound of ancient Greek, which we can reconstruct up to a point because the Greeks themselves wrote so much about the subject); Bringhurst’s ability to bring an entire cultural tradition to bear on a single question brings ideas and language alive. Then Dan Carr explained, and demonstrated, the nature of hand-cutting metal type punches and its relation to digital type design. Finally, to bring it all back to the heart of the matter, Bringhurst delivered a dramatic, impassioned reading of his translation of the fragments of Parmenides.

A New Old Type
Although the English translation will be typeset in an existing typeface (16pt Van Dijck, in the sample just printed), Koch was looking for a typeface for the Greek original that looked like Greek letters cut in stone or on metal coins in the 6th century BC — a sort of “refined primitive,” as he said. Christopher Stinehour had already created a typeface for an earlier book of Diogenes based on ancient Greek graffiti — the notes, slogans, and admonitions scrawled on walls and bits of metal or pots in ancient Athens. Stinehour’s Diogenes typeface came out monoline, simple, and informal, like the lettering of the graffiti. He refined this when he began thinking about Parmenides, looking at inscriptional forms — carved, rather than scrawled or scratched — and trying out a very geometric model, made up almost entirely of circles and straight lines.

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Dan Carr designed the typeface for the Ancient Greek text to resemble ancient inscriptional forms.

Robert Bringhurst drew sketches of all the characters that would be needed to print Parmenides: twenty-four characters, plus variants and punctuation. Stinehour then made “lots of drawings” of letters from various inscriptions, simple drawings with a felt-tip pen. He scanned these drawings into Adobe Illustrator, then drew over the scans in Illustrator to create the outlines, which he then imported into Fontographer to turn them into a font.

What Stinehour created was used as a prototype for the project, but Koch commissioned Dan Carr to create the final typeface for Parmenides and to cut the punches from which the metal type will be cast. Carr took his inspiration from the archaic writing of the 6th century and earlier — what he called a “more contrapuntal or organic letterform” than the geometric forms found in later centuries.

Hands On
The odd set-up on stage — of overhead lights and a vertically suspended camera and a big table covered with stone-carver’s tools — came into its own as Christopher Stinehour moved from his lecture to an actual demonstration of the art of cutting letters in stone. The suspended camera gave us an overhead view of his workspace, which was projected onto the screen, so we could see his hands and the tools and the stone as he worked. You could see the enlarged view of the slate or limestone (he used both) being cut into as Stinehour’s hammer knocked his chisel, or you could shift your gaze from the screen to the man onstage, hammering away carefully but quickly on the stone in front of him, with each blow causing puffs of white stone dust to spurt into the air.

The next day, punchcutter Dan Carr used the same set-up to demonstrate how he cuts a metal punch — the little stick of metal with a tiny, letter-sized face on the end in the shape of a single letter (in reverse). He demonstrated what it was like to cut punches, with tiny files and gravers and other specialized implements, peering closely at the little piece of metal as he shaped its end. To work at such a small size, it’s necessary to use a magnifying glass, though Carr would periodically check what he was doing by making a “smoke proof” — literally holding the piece of metal in the smoke from a candle flame to pick up a coating of soot, then pressing the soot-blackened end onto a piece of paper to produce an image.

Seeing these two centuries-old, hands-on processes going on right in front of us made them seem accessible, like something any of us could do if only we took the trouble to learn how. (Where’s my hammer and chisel?)

Do It Again
The Parmenides Project is no sterile intellectual exercise for Peter Koch et al. Although Parmenides is considered to be “hard,” Koch and his collaborators have devoted their efforts to this project because Parmenides’ words speak to them, and they want those words to speak to others in the future.

The most amazing parts of the two-day seminar were the two live demonstrations of physical letter-cutting, and Bringhurst’s heartfelt, resonant reading of his translation of the fragments themselves. These are events that will never fit between the covers of a book. But perhaps this will not be the only time they are done in public. Koch spoke of the possibility of doing this again in New York, London, or Berlin.

  • anonymous says:

    Loved your piece on Parmenides, a bit high- flown for a wee Scotsman, philosophy and all. Made the link with R Brighurst, who I enjoyed at an ATYPi conference some time ago…
    You must have a look at a book ‘Printing Type Designs; a new history from Gutenberg to 2000’ by a friend Duncan Glen. He’s a retired typo, poet and author. He has made some interesting conections between our two countries!!!
    He runs publishing house Akros from 33 Lady Nairn Avenue, Kirkcaldy, Fife, UK. Tel 01592 651522.
    Its worth a read…
    Regards Tom Bee

  • anonymous says:

    I liked this article.
    However you should rephrase your rating
    system to something like “liked or enjoyed
    or valued article” This wasn’t the type of
    article you could agree or disagree with.
    Robert Frost

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