Leaving Winterthur before 5:00, I went to eat a late lunch heading North. I didn’t know where I was staying that night. I had anticipated staying at a friend’s place, but misunderstood the location of his home. My plan was to get to Princeton in the morning and I wanted to be close enough to get there at opening time.
I belong to an online motorcycle forum and have a number of imaginary internet friends, some of whom I’ve met in person. One such, is my friend Bill Morris. He lives in Central New Jersey and travels about 30 minutes to work by motorcycle as often as he can. He was serving as Executive Officer of the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Lawrenceville, NJ. I called him and asked if I could stay with he and his family for about 3 nights and I’d be arriving in 2 hours at the most as I was no more than 75 miles south. Ever the moto-gentleman, he said yes and gave me directions to come to the post and hang out till he was headed home. It took me 3.5 hours to get there!
I was leaving Delaware around 4:30 and knew that I’d hit commuter traffic. East Coast roads can be a little confusing as the signage isn’t always that large or very well placed. Turnpikes are unforgiving if you miss an entrance or exit and correcting a mistake can take you out of the way. This happened to me a couple of times on my trek north so it took much longer than I expected. Bill was patient and waited till I arrived.
We told a few stories and then he pointed me back south and we retraced my last 25 miles. Bill likes to go fast – really fast. He promised to keep his bike from flying, but I don’t think he was much under escape velocity the whole time. At that time of night, the roads are fairly empty and it felt like we were on a private racecourse. I never once tried to catch or pass him, I just tried to keep his tail light in sight! That invigorating ride was a tonic after the frustrating experience of eastern road navigation.
After 8 or so years of reading about Bill, his service and motorcycle adventures, it was nice to meet him and his family in person. His daughters get up quite early for school and they went to bed soon after I arrived. Bill and I caught up until well after midnight. Following a person online is an odd way of acquiring friends. Do they represent themselves or a facade of the person they want you to see? Will they be as tall as they look on screen? It’s a bit of a risk meeting someone you respect online. I’ve found that the people that I connect with online have, for the most part, been even better than what I imagined. Bill is one of those guys. And it was nice to see him in his work and home environments.
Morning came sooner than I wanted, but I did get a good night’s sleep. Now for a ride up 295 in morning rush hour traffic – without getting shunted in the wrong direction. I navigated most of that well, except I had to stop and check myself getting off of 95 at 206. I got out my phone and checked the map, saw that I was on track and kept riding up the used-to-be rural road. Like many outlying urban areas, farmland gives way to estates and generously spaced-out housing developments or gated communities. More traffic than the roads were designed for, so the traffic is often congested throughout the day.
As I rode into Princeton, I had to check the phone map a couple more times but finally get myself situated and get the bike parked close to campus even though I’ll have to move it in a little while. Why don’t I have a GPS, or at least a paper map? I used to be assiduous about having local maps as I travelled across the country. They were in my tank bag, so all I had to do was study them prior to that leg of the ride and then check my progress with a quick look down. I was resistant to GPS devices when they started to be used in the early 2000’s as I felt that they don’t promote being engaged in mentally acquiring the route I’m traveling. Just follow the screen and the little man on the motorcycle, and you’ll get there without thinking. Now I’m not opposed, but I didn’t see the need to buy one on the trip.
It was a bit of an ordeal, however I made it to the campus fairly early and was ready to get to work at the Firestone Library. I was psyched by the chance to see their writing manuals and other, non-book instructional aids. I’m a sucker for 3D objects, and they had a number of them to review!
I’m breaking the mostly-chronological nature of the story to report that I’ve made it back to Oakland, CA. I returned last Thursday and am getting re-acclimated to being off the road and returning to a daily routine.
As I rode through the mountains and into Death Valley, temperatures rose, but the day was so chilly that I had to stop in Furnace Creek for warmth and food. The previous couple of days were a bit challenging. I’d left Sedona, AZ on Monday, the 9th after having lunch with a couple I know from Oakland. It was bright and chilly, and I wanted to make it down from the San Francisco Peaks mountain range before it got too late in the day. I managed to do that and rode until around 7:00 with a few stops to warm up. My gloves were no longer waterproof or wind proof and I was wearing cloth gloves as liners to keep me somewhat warmer.
Around 7:00 I stopped at the Tecopa school district building to check my map and see how far I still had to travel. It could have been around the next bend, or 10 miles away, I didn’t know. The building has street lights so I felt safe stopping in the parking lot to check my phone.
As I started off, the bike died. And when I tried to restart it, the battery went completely dead and I was left without power of any kind. Because this had happened three previous times on the trip, I was familiar with the symptoms and possible cure. I pulled all my gear off to get under the seat and to the battery. I checked the wires to the main fuse block and the fuse itself. All was in order, so I then checked the battery. It was hot to the touch. Not warm or neutral as it should be, but hot. This meant that the battery was fried from too much voltage returning to it after the alternator created electricity.
The Honda Hurricane has a regulator/rectifier that manages input and output of power through the system. I knew now that I’d have to find a new battery and the bike was not going anywhere that night. My chill was not so great as to be worrisome, but I was weary and mildly concerned as to my location in regards to the Tecopa motel I was scheduled to stay at. Still in my riding gear, I started down the dark road in hopes of finding the motel close by. After walking into the dark, I retraced my steps. I had to have faith in my mantra: “I wonder what nice people I’ll meet today.”
No car had come by in 10 minutes and I didn’t know how long it might be for the next one. I was tired and didn’t think it wise to leave the light. If someone was going to pick me up, it would be better to stand under the street light and be visible.
I said I’d start walking if a car didn’t come by in 20 minutes. Around 17 minutes into it, two cars passed me traveling in the opposite direction. I waved my cap slowly like a train signalman to get their attention. They pulled into the parking lot and were happy to take me to the motel. Brad drove his wife and friend back home just around the corner. His friend was in the second car and didn’t know the area in the dark.
When Brad picked me up we had a nice discussion and got along so I asked if he hired out as a taxi. He said he’d take me the 30 miles to O’Reilly’s and get a replacement battery the next day. True to his word, we met up in the morning and the four of us wandered northeast to Parhump, NV to replace the burned up battery.
I was happy that the new battery fit and worked properly, so I relaxed a little and sat in the hot tubs supplied as part of the motel fee. My neck hurt quite a bit from crouching down behind the windshield so I splurged and got a massage after a hot tub soak. This made me much more relaxed.
After a slow night of relaxation and further dips, I got up at 4:00 a.m. for a final soak. I wrote some and organized myself for the penultimate day’s ride through Death Valley. I wrote a few postcards and headed to the Post Office at 8:00 a.m. to send them on their way on Wednesday, Veteran’s Day.
Death Valley is beautiful and when it’s chilly rather than boiling hot, it’s a refreshing (if cold) experience. I was set to meet a buddy at Big Pine, CA at noon. I made it to Lone Pine, some 40 miles south, around 12:15. We connected and rather than travel north, I was able to rest and warm up while he ate and headed south. The roads were icy on Hwy 50 and that meant all passes across the Sierra were icy. The only thing to do was travel south to cut across Hwy 178 past Lake Isabella. Those canyons are quite beautiful, but cold on this wintery day. We managed to hit the last canyon after the sun was low enough to be hidden by the mountains. But it wasn’t yet dark, so the temperature hadn’t plunged to freezing yet.
We gassed up and headed north on Hwy 99 out of Bakersfield and rode for almost another hour before stopping for Mexican food. The meal was welcome and put a little heat in us, so that we could continue on to Elk Grove where Rob lives. We made it there by 10:30. I’d started at 8:00 that morning and was thoroughly exhausted by the 660 mile ride that day.
Thursday I got up and had a great breakfast, then rolled into my shop in Oakland around 1:00 p.m. 98 days from when i left.
There are still many more stories to tell about the books and people I met along the way. And now that I’m back, I can organize my thoughts and continue the narrative.
The trip was quite successful and has energized me with both research questions and artistic ideas. I will be going back out on the road in the Spring next year to go to libraries I didn’t visit this trip. Weather dictated that I miss Boston and Rochester, so they’ll be a particular focus on my next trip and I got sick in NYC and had to cancel trips to Philadelphia area libraries.
Because I found many more things to look at than time allowed, I’ll be revising a number of libraries from the first visit. Therefore, Motoscribendi will continue.
I’ll be doing research on how to prepare and present the database. I’ve learned a few things that should help make it a more open and useful tool than I first envisioned. That work will continue and I welcome input as to how best to do it.
The Motoscribendi tour rolls out in a few hours. I packed all my clothes and camping gear, now the hard part comes: Getting the traveling writing kit together – pens, inks, paper, etc.
The t-shirts are done as you can see and have already been shipped out, so that’s been a relief to have accomplished. Thanks to Meg Smith, other fulfillment will be done while I’m gone. And she and her boyfriend are taking their bikes to escort me to Sacramento on Delta roads and twisties just to get things going.
Where am I going?
I’ve come to the conclusion that an itinerary will help – even if I change things up along the way. The list below is my first attempt at routing.
August 6th – Saturday 8th: Oakland/Santa Fe, NM
August 10th – Tuesday 11th: Santa Fe/Austin
August 12 – 18 Austin, TX
August 18 – 21 Houston
August 22 – 23 Houston/Iowa City
August 24 – 25 Iowa City, IA
August 26 Iowa City/Chicago
August 27 – September 2 Chicago, IL
Sept. 2 Chicago/Ann Arbor, MI
Sept. 3 – 4 Ann Arbor & Detroit, MI
Sept. 5 – 6 Detroit/Charlottesville
Sept. 6 – 7 Charlottesville, VA
Sept. 8 – 9 Richmond, VA
Sept. 10 Richmond/Washington, D.C.
Sept 11 – 15 Washington, DC
Sept. 16 Washington, DC/Princeton
Sept. 17 -18 Princeton, NJ
Sept. 19 Princeton/NYC
Sept. 20 – 26 NYC
Sept 27 NYC/New Haven
Sept 28 – 29 New Haven, CT
Sept. 30 New Haven/Worcester
Oct. 1 – 3 Worcester, MA
Oct. 4 Worcester/Cambridge
Oct. 5 – 8 Cambridge, MA
Oct. 9 -10 Hanover, NH
Oct 11 Hanover/Scranton, PA
Oct. 12 Scranton/Philadelphia
Oct 13 – 14 Philadelphia, PA
Oct. 14 Philadelphia/Cleveland
Oct. 15 – 17 GBW, Cleveland, OH
Oct. 23 – 24 APHA Rochester, NY
Oct. 25 – 31 Return to CA, no fixed itinerary
Remember, this is a motorcycle tour of libraries that have writing manuals and copybooks, and to keep that in mind, here’s a few more items to look at.
I’ll see you in a few days with a report.
Thanks to all who contributed to Motoscribendi!
The final count was $6,579 and this will allow me to print and make all the Perks (they will begin going out next week) and then allow me at least 45 days on the road. While 45 days isn’t a long time to travel 12,000 miles and visit almost 20 libraries (yes, the number has increased since I started this!) I will still spend a few days at each institution and gather information, look at the books and work with librarians to develop the Census.
Below are some shots Jennie Hinchcliff took at a presentation I made at the Letterform Archive.
I owe a ton of thanks to a number of people who encouraged me as well as helped organize the project. Next week I’ll get things organized enough to do a proper thank you as I have been scrambling to get all the artwork completed, sent to printers: T-shirt, sticker and offset printers.
I will be on the road by Wednesday night, August 5th. And I’ll probably leave at 8:00 pm and make all of 100 miles before I stop! I’ll continue the blog from the road.
My Indiegogo Motoscribendi campaign is now up. I’ve made a video describing the kinds of things I’ll be looking at. I volunteered at this week’s conference of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Hosted in Oakland and on the campus of UC Berkeley’s libraries, hundreds of librarians came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities of libraries in the digital era. It was a good time meeting up with a few old friends and meeting new colleagues from around the country.
When I wasn’t helping out, I was in my shop working on the video and cutting a woodblock logo for the project.
The excitement of cutting letters in wood continues to grab me. Taking a letterform and rendering it in relief in wood is physically demanding and challenging. The resultant printed image transforms the scribal experience.
I’ll have more images of writing books and my own woodcuts posted in a day or two.
But I knew better, weather will turn on ya in a mile and make you wish you’d stayed home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.