Excerpt: Alphabetical by Michael Rosen

“e is for e. e. cummings”

In about 1960, my father showed me some poems by e. e. cummings. (Note: not E. E. Cummings.) For a while, I felt dislocated, at a loose end. The point about our conventions of print is that they tell you where you are, without telling you. That simple little duo, the full stop and capital letter, not only tells us of initials, abbreviations and the beginning and end of sentences. Since their invention, they have been part of how we have invented continuous prose. In the history of writing as a whole, they are relative newcomers and their arrival was slow and inconsistent. 

Using capital letters to begin things started out as early as the fourth century where they were used at the start of a page. Take a look at the illuminated manuscripts in the great national libraries and you’ll see that the scribes must have taken many hours creating these staggeringly ornate openers. By the fourteenth century, many scribes were using capitals to begin sentences, so by the time printing began with Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the early 1450s, this was the convention that he was used to. He seems to have overreached himself a little though. On this first go, his plan was to typeset everything except the capital letters, leaving a gap for them to be added on the second run-through. Having used black ink the first time around, he now fixed the capitals in the frame, changed the ink to red and ran the sheet through for a second time. After a few goes at it, he decided to jack it in and do the capitals by hand. 

From Alphabetical by Michael Rosen, Counterpoint Press, counterpointpress.com. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

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