Monday, March 03, 2003
posted 8:06 AM

Someone asks why I put the titles of books (and, as it happens, feature films and recordings) in all-caps. (They also point out that Starbucks is spelled sans apostrophe. Thank you.)

Mechanical typewriters were generally limited to a single, fixed font, which meant that unless you were using an italic typewriter (these existed, though I’ve no idea what for, but were very rare) you were unable to render book-titles as they would conventionally be set in type.

The convention, therefore, as backed up by every academic stylesheet, was that titles of major works (books, feature films) were to be underlined, while lesser works (poems, short stories) would be put in quotes.

[Dead Tech backgrounder, for extra points: In the decade or so prior to the advent of personal computers, IBM produced an electric typewriter called the Selectric; this had a “type-ball”, a metal sphere about the size of a golf ball, which held an entire font; you could switch fonts, which at the time was little short of miraculous; you could also, even more amazingly, power-correct mistakes with a built-in paper-colored ribbon. The IBM Selectric, when I started writing for publication, was the most shit-hot professional writing machine on the planet; by the time I could have afforded one, they were propping up broken barbecue grills in Value Village. The Finn’s shop probably has at least one box of Selectric type-balls, somewhere; they are beautiful sculptural objects, these balls, and won’t be easily thrown away.]

While underlining was the academic convention, it required the typist to backspace for the length of a given title, then underline. Just that added little bit of work. Just that little bit more tedious.

Much of my earliest typewriting experience had to do with mimeography, a pre-thermocopy form of reproduction once fairly universal in the world’s offices. You typed, once, on a waxed paper “stencil”, clipped this over a silkscreen device with a moving pad or drum of ink behind it, and your mimeograph ran off (or silkscreened, really) as many copies of your document as you required. Owing to the physical peculiarities of the medium, though, it was unwise to underline too frequently on a mimeograph stencil: the single unbroken line was particularly prone to tear, producing leaks and smudging.

Some people who liked books, and frequently wrote letters, on typewriters, to other people who liked books, tended, free from the constraints of an academic stylesheet, to render titles in all-caps. (It required fewer case shifts than capping each required word in the title, you see.) People who wrote about books for publication in amateur journals (mimeo was an authentic medium of the American samisdat) rendered titles in all-caps in order to avoid stencil-tears.

At various times, I was both.

So it’s a techno-generational thing: a cultural artifact of two dead media platforms.

Though I suppose it may seem, to someone raised on the Internet, as though I SHOUT the title of each book…

But don’t let these foibles frighten you off. I’m quite harmless really.

(Cue Waylon Jennings’ “Man From Another Time”, which, since it isn’t the title of the album, CHILL FACTOR, on which it appears, doesn’t need to be in all-caps.)

Powered by Blogger