Tag Archives: calligraphy

A Long Distance Ride To Writing Manuals

Sometimes a motorcycle ride is just a ride. And at other times, it’s a dramatic escape from the shackles of entropy. This particular ride started with an escape and developed into a dream.
Once I closed my business after 12 years in operation, my time became my own again. I could take a trip and get on with things that I’d set aside for years. Like long distance motorcycle trips and studying writing manuals. My niece was getting married in Llano, TX and I planned to ride there and visit the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) at the University of Texas in Austin after the wedding.
The motorcycle for this little excursion is a 1987 Honda Hurricane 1000F, commonly known as a sport touring bike. My knees may disagree with its suitability for long hours in the saddle, but it was a good mount as regards power.
Packed and ready to go
I spent somewhat longer in replacing the alternator damper than I planned to. It is an arcanely designed part that spins the starter and also spins the alternator to keep the battery charged. It was buried deep within the engine cases and is known to be a difficult installation. Some things bring their own challenges and this one offered me a growth opportunity.
The wedding was on Saturday, April 11, and I’d hoped to get on the road early in the week. The mechanical challenge ate up my time but I persevered until Wednesday, April 8, 2015 when at 5:00 p.m. the bike started and ran. Rob, one of my riding buddies,  talked me out of trying to shove some items in my new saddle bags and get going that night.
I messed around until 1:00 a.m. and got up at 4:30 to leave. I was on the road a little after 5:00 a.m. heading east out of Oakland and into the morning dawn. Still dark as I rode along 580 towards I5. Traffic was backed up in the other direction but my side was pretty empty and I began to feel the excitement of the start of a trip. While I5 isn’t the most inspiring road, it was fairly empty and the cloud cover kept the temperature ideal. East of Bakersfield, Dave, my imaginary internet buddy, guided me to Barstow and south on 247 towards I10. This little road has twists, turns, elevation and climate change. Lucerne Valley is pleasant and the Morongo Valley is a little gem.
Headed towards Lucern Valley. The twisty road up the mountain is Hwy 18 which takes you to Big Bear Lake
Headed towards Lucern Valley. The twisty road up the mountain is Hwy 18 which takes you to Big Bear Lake
Old gas station and pump
Old gas station and pump
Back when cigarettes were cool
Back when cigarettes were cool
Sixteen hours after starting, I stopped in Gila Bend, AZ to stealth camp in an RV park behind a truck stop. Setting up this tent in the dark with my stiff back, knees and fingers was a bit of a comedy as I couldn’t really see what I was doing and had only used this tent twice before. Adventure!
Friday, April 10th before the workday traffic began I was back on the road and on I10 headed towards Texas. Arizona and New Mexico flew by as I meditated on my life and this trip. I was looking forward to making it by Saturday afternoon for my niece’s wedding. I had 960 miles to go and I might have made it but bailed out after the heat, hail and rain I rode through in West Texas. I got a hotel in Ozona, roughly 850 miles from the day’s starting point.
Saturday morning’s ride into Llano through the Hill Country was very pleasant with clouds and dramatic light playing across the bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush. It was one of those atmospheric tricks that happened for much of this 3 day trip that suggested that all was well in the world. The wind and sun caressed my skin in a way that felt like i was in a movie.
Hmm. I knew I was on I 10 for a long time, but I didn’t remember crossing the Atlantic

But I knew better, weather will turn on ya in a mile and make you wish you’d stayed home.

Family, old friends, new acquaintances, this is what weddings are for – and this one didn’t disappoint. I felt renewed and connected as I hadn’t in quite a while. Yes, it was worth the somewhat uncomfortable ride. And even the discomfort enriched the experience.
At The Hideaway in Llano, TX
At The Hideaway in Llano, TX
IMG_6538 1
Bluebonnets, bulletholes and dirtbikes – a typical Texas scene
On Tuesday I headed to the HRC on the UT campus. This was the scene of phase two of my calligraphic and history of the book education. In 1982, I worked in the conservation lab and then moved to the rare book reading room as a page. I wanted to look at a few of the writing manuals that I studied back then. I forgot that the HRC has one of the stellar collections of writing manuals in the United States. In conversation with the rare books librarian, Rich Oram, I was reminded of the breadth and scope of this collection that was sold to UT in 1962 by the Italian book dealer Carla Marzoli.
Horfei Copybook @ Harry Ransom Center
Horfei Copybook @ Harry Ransom Center
Horfei Copybook @ Harry Ransom Center. This book was trimmed and the pages were mounted in a larger textblock – much like a scrapbook
Call slip record
Call slip record
Unfortunately, the cataloger of that time chose not to note in a field which books came from the Marzoli purchase. It is not too difficult to read the printed catalog that was used to sell the collection. However, in this day of digital research, having a data field to cross reference all the information available would have been useful. The presumption that finding things online will be faster and easier than the old analog method of checking a card catalog isn’t always the case. We’re a long way from the utopian world of comprehensive digital access to rare books and special collections material.
Cresci @ Harry Ransom Center
There’s some difficulty in discovering where writing manuals are collected when using WorldCat. It will give you a fair description of known copies in libraries, if they were cataloged individually. Cataloging standards have changed over time and the entries in WorldCat are limited to libraries. When searching for Il Perfetto by Giovanni Fracesco Cresci printed in 1570, the Metropolitan Museum’s copy housed in their Drawings and Prints collection doesn’t appear in WorldCat since this copy was cataloged as a work of art on paper, not as a library item. I was able to look at the two copies of Il Perfetto while at the HRC. But only the 1579 edition is cataloged in their records. The second copy is bound in a 19th C. compendium of writing manuals that were cut apart and pasted into one of seven volumes of writing manuals compiled by Henry Benjamin Hanbury Beaufoy, a wealthy vinegar magnate. That catalog entry states that the collection focuses on English, Dutch and German writing books. Cresci’s books were published in Milan.
Cresci - mounted into Beaufoy @ Harry Ransom Center
Cresci – mounted into Beaufoy @ Harry Ransom Center
My trip back to California was fairly uneventful and quite pleasant. Weather was mostly perfect and I traveled off I10 up through New Mexico from Deming to Holbrook, AZ on NM180. They’ve had rain and it was green and truly spring-like in the mountains.
New Mexico sky
New Mexico sky
Modified Cherokee for hauling dogs
Modified Cherokee for hauling dogs
New Mexico post office
New Mexico post office
As I rode without a deadline, enjoying the scenery and wind and speed, my mind drifted to the writing manuals. One of the big attractions to riding a motorcycle long-distance is that it is a moving meditation. I can free-associate and let a part of my mind wander while still attending to the road and scenery. When I ride for more than five hours in a go, the continuos attention to the road settles me into a reflective mood that I don’t get very often. The prolonged continuance of this state becomes a laboratory for my mind. I shift into this creative zone where ideas that don’t come freely begin to emerge.  I can reflect on them, review them and revise them like sketches on a pad.
This is what I was doing for the five days I took to travel 2150 miles back to Oakland. In the middle of the ride, I spent a day in Flagstaff doing nothing more than walking around and resting and writing. My body didn’t need the rest as much as my mind needed to calm down from the excitement of my thoughts.
The idea that captured my imagination was a clarification of something I’ve been playing with the past few months after closing my business. I’ve wanted to combine the two passions of my life. Riding, studying writing manuals, visiting libraries and book arts friends and telling stories.
This was the genesis of the ride I’m about to take.

Finding Libraries with Writing Manuals

What is a Writing Manual?

Writing manuals teach a student how to form letters and write a particular style of writing or hand. Often, a writing manual discussed ink recipes, paper selection, how to cut a quill into a pen and how to hold it. They came into widespread use in the first quarter of the 16th century as a way to teach students how to be scribes. The first writing book to be published was written by Ludovico degli Arrighi’s La Operina and was printed from a text cut in wood.

Books with text cut in wood had been available prior to the invention of moveable type, but those books were meant to be read for the text only. With metal type, there was no way to illustrate how to form letters, and Arrighi had his text engraved in wood and printed from these blocks of text. Writing manuals quickly became Renaissance best sellers. Writing manuals were popular books because they showed how to write specific styles and they were designed to be beautiful books.

Because the text was cut in wood (later engraved in copper), the blocks were saved for later printing and often printed by different printers. Their useful life could extend beyond a century. This gave rise to a dizzying number of variants and titles.

Giovanni Batista Palatino composed and published Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivener  in 1540. As you can see from the title, the advertiser’s favorite “New and Improved” marketing technique was born. Julie L. Melby at Princeton’s Graphic Arts collection does a fine job of writing about these books in Palatino’s Tools of Writing.

The Bancroft Library’s copy Compendio del gran volvme dell’art del bene & leggiadramente scriuere tutte le forti di lettere e caratteri… from 1588, shows a previous owner’s attempt at writing out the text in the margin.

1588 Palatino @Bancroft Library. Student has copied part of the text in the lower margin.

Where are these books located & how do I find them?

The heavyweights in the history of writing have written about these books for a century. People like Stanley Morison, Alfred Fairbank, James Wardrop and Nicholas Barker dove deep into this subject. These guys were interested in how handwriting influenced type design and how these books were made and printed because they were primarily illustrated books about letterforms. Illustrated in wood or metal, the text might be all cut (therefore illustrated, not typeset) or an admixture of typographic and xylographic (woodcut) or copperplate. If you’re really interested in this, you can get lost in the subject and never even see one of the actual books. There is so much literature in both books and journals that you could spend a year reading and know only a little.

Because I have spent a lot of time looking at these books all over the US, I’m familiar with their location and know where the major collections are. Making a census of books by location will assist scholars in their research. Without this type of finding aid, it is difficult to know what is in an institution since items are not cataloged in a way that they can be found online.

I invite readers to suggest institutions with writing manuals and copybooks that I may have missed.

Map it!

I am drawing a map that will give you a view of where I’ll be headed – and loosely, when. Then you can follow along, and if I discover more institutions along the way I can visit them. The trip will begin in the Bay Area and head in a counter-clockwise direction around the US and into Canada.

Leaving the locals till last, I’ll give you a quick highlight: Huntington Library, Harry Ransom Center, UTAustin, Library of Congress, Folger Shakespreare Library, Scranton, Philadelphia, Princeton, New York Public Library, Columbia University, Yale, American Antiquarian Society, Harvard, Toronto, Chicago, Iowa City, and home to the target-rich environment of the Bay Area.

Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive. First horizontal writing book.
Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive.
First horizontal writing book.

Locally, the Bancroft Library at UCBerkeley has a number of items, San Francisco Public Library, Stanford and the Letterform Archive. You’ll be hearing about this new institution as my friend Rob Saunders has turned his private collection of material about letterforms into a nonprofit organization that offers digital images of the collection as well as on-site study for type designers, calligraphers, lettering artists and historians.

I’ve got a few things to prepare for my Indiegogo launch on June 19, and will be back in a day or two with more.

Here’s a few woodblock items I’ve done and printed letterpress.

Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock printed letterpress
Woodblock printed letterpress

Motoscribendi: Libraries, Historic Calligraphy Manuals, Book People and Motorcycles

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library


My name is Nicholas Yeager, I’m a scholar, librarian, motorcyclist and scribe.

You know what the first three are, but what’s a scribe? Every time you write something with a pen, you are inscribing the paper (or other substrate) with your handwriting. A scribe may be called lettering artist or calligrapher these days but there was a time when the only way to record information was by writing it down. And the people that did that were called scribes.

Motoscribendi will chronicle my travels – yes, by motorcycle – to major collections of old writing manuals, copybooks and lettering instruction manuals at libraries across North America. These visits will enable me to develop a catalog of representative writing manuals that will help people locate these scattered resources. (Despite a resurgence in type design and lettering art, there’s still no centralized way to find them.)  The trip will also help me produce a modern writing manual that pays homage to this type of book.

A Little History

If Gutenberg were trying to destroy the scribal industry by inventing printing back in the 15th century, he blew it. Because one of the unintended consequences of printing was to establish a permanent place for calligraphers and scribes. Printing didn’t eliminate scribes, it created even more need for scribes to record legal, commercial, theological and medical correspondence. And printing allowed writing masters a method of recording their exact lettering instructions to teach students far from their writing schools.

How to hold the quill pen
How to hold the quill pen

My Story

Thirty-nine years ago I began to study calligraphy and the history of the book. With Patti Downing, I began a manuscript study group at the Newberry Library in Chicago. We studied various hands and book design, early printing and the large collection of writing manuals that are housed at the Newberry.

My interest in these books stayed with me and I continued to study them at the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University’s Rare Book Room and as a librarian at New York Public Library.

Horfei's Roman Capital A
Horfei’s Roman Capital A at the Harry Ransom Center

Along with this I practiced calligraphy and graphic design, wrote about and edited calligraphic and book art publications and studied descriptive bibliography and the history of printing. I teach calligraphy and lettering and make pieces for shows and for sale.

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Juan Yciar 1564 Bancroft Library

While I moved around the country, I rode motorcycles for most of that  time, having begun riding when I was 13. My love of long-distance motorcycling didn’t have an opportunity to develop until I was in my 40s and has since been a major component of my life. I have traveled to library trade shows, exhibitions and workshops on my motorcycle. Riding lets me discover what lies between the major cities I travel to – and to be fully present in all those places. It gives me the same feeling of immersion and discovery I get from studying a writing manual. In both cases, a lot of the most interesting stuff is hidden in the finest details. It needs to be experienced up close and in person.

Stroke sequence

My trip will start in mid July. I hope you’ll come along  especially if you’re new to these books and their history. I’ll discuss their design, printing and collecting history as well as my talks with historians, librarians, printers and other book arts practitioners across North America.