Josna Rege

306. Composition

In Media, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on April 4, 2015 at 1:46 am


(Blush Bespoke & Custom Letterpress)

(Blush Bespoke & Custom Letterpress)

220px-Handsatz_ZubehoerIn letterpress printing, composition or typesetting is the stage where type is assembled to form the text. In manual composition individual letters are taken out of a typecase and put together in a composing stick, then transferred into a galley, and eventually, to the press.

When I first tried my hand at composition as a teenager, I took to it surprisingly quickly. Perhaps it was because, as a left-hander, I was used to writing upside down and backwards. (I ought to have studied a Semitic language like Arabic or Hebrew, since as a child I took great pleasure in writing from right to left so that my already-illegible scrawl became an impenetrable code.) It has only just occurred to me, watching a 1959 training video while preparing to compose this story, that I must have been using a right-hander’s composing stick all those years and somehow holding it in my right hand instead of the left, since sticks for lefties are rumoured to exist but rarely seen.

The person who does the composition is called a compositor and not a composer. Is it because the composer is seen as an artist while the compositor is considered only a tradesperson? But isn’t the printed page a work of art as well? Every text, visual or written, whatever the medium, is a composition in the sense that it is constructed, assembled out of smaller elements—letters, musical notes, brush strokes—to create a pleasing and coherent whole.

For that matter, aren’t human beings compositions too? When we find ourselves in disarray, we need some time out to pull ourselves together. Composition also concentrates the mind wonderfully, allowing the typesetter to compose herself as well as the text in hand.

Norah Dooley using a composing stick in her basement press, c. 1982 (

My friend Norah Dooley using a composing stick in her basement press, c. 1982 (

The typeface I chose for the letter C is Caslon, actually a group of serif typefaces whose earliest design dates to 1722. Caslon is thought to be the first original typeface to come out of England. It was very popular in the eighteenth century and then again after it was revived in the late nineteenth. Apparently the playwright George Bernard Shaw used to insist that his work be set in Caslon.


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atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

  1. I wish I could be more creative with my fonts on WordPress. And, yes, chosing and placing the print is creative.

    • Yes, it is a little frustrating not to be able to play with the typefaces; and layout is hard to work out as well–although you do an amazing job, especially with your mastheads and the photocollages that you make. There may be other themes that allow more possibilities for design. On the other hand, it’s easy to work with the theme I have, which sets up everything I enter into a clean, readable format. Doing my own design with each new story would probably involve a lot more time!

  2. That was fascinating, the reason for the word – the printing option of its provenance is the one I believe! I LOVE deadlines, working as a poet, on my own, it’s much more difficult to get work done, when there are so many distractions at home – the dog, books, housework… When I have a deadline I get a hundred times as much done, and what’s more, writing for a reason, my work quality improves. Wish I could do it in my own. ~Liz

    • Thank you for visiting, Liz, and for your comment. Yes, I have always felt like you about deadlines. But although in the past I have got more done when I have a deadline, more recently I’ve noticed that the additional pressure can be more disabling than enabling–especially after I’ve missed it! Even when the pressure of the deadline makes me get the work done, I can’t say for certain that the quality of the writing is better, this April Challenge being a case in point. Here’s to meeting all our deadlines this week! J

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