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Weight and Consequence

I’m a third of the way through the monumental novel A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles. I’ve just learned that Sayles’s new film, Amigo, is due out in August. It shares the novel’s subject matter—the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century. (Parallels to the present day, anyone?) Here’s the trailer:

A Moment in the Sun is completely worthy of the commitment to its nearly one thousand pages, and this extract about the seemingly mundane act of setting type for a newspaper should offer a clue as to why:

Here we scribe truth in hot lead.

            The phrase makes Milsap smile as he sits at the machine, compositing the front page of the morning edition. . . .

            . . . Milsap’s fingers fly over the keys, brass and steel rattling into the assembler box and molten metal flowing down to make the slugs. He did it by hand in what they’re already calling the old days, building sentences a letter at a time with a dozen other setters in the room. Mr. Clawson got the Model 1 five years ago and Milsap is the only one left who can look into the machine and savor its intricate beauty, the interplay of belts and blocks, gears and wheels, the way it cycles the matrices back into the distributor, every letter into its distinct channel, drink in the thick, hot-metal smell of it. And he is the only one who can glance at a piece of copy, even something scrawled with hasty hand, and see it in solid block columns before his fingers touch the keyboard, edit the wording on the fly without resorting to awkward hyphens or loose lines for his justification. There are no orphans or widows dangling from Milsap’s paragraphs. He understands better than anybody that words are not sounds made of air but solid objects, with weight and consequence. (pages 225-226)

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