Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Smoke proofs

There's a really magical essay by Alec Wilkinson in last week's New Yorker (I'm having late-night catching up on back issues; I don't think this piece is online) about the type designer Matthew Carter. There are all sorts of amazing moments in it (and the piece is beautifully well-written, too), but check out this paragraph from early on:

Choosing wine in a store, Carter looks for a bottle that has type he designed on the label. He likes to watch movies with an eye out for anachronistic appearances of type. In a movie set in 1939, he saw a document printed with a version of a typeface called Snell Roundhand Bold, an elaborate script which is used mainly for monograms, engravings, and on the menus of fancy restaurants, and which he designed in 1972. (The script was based on the handwriting of a seventeenth-century British writing master named Charles Snell.) Another time, at an antique auction, he saw a poster announcing the sale of slaves, which was being offered as genuine. He noticed that some of the writing was in a typeface invented in the nineteen-fifties. He thought it was strange that someone would take so much trouble to forge a document and then be sloppy about the typeface, but people tend to think that typefaces have always existed. Not long ago, a lawyer called him. She had a woman in her office who had tried to claim a piece of property her father had left her. The woman had been taken aback when her father's business partner presented a document, with a date of 1981, in which the father wrote that he was giving the property to the partner. Carter was able to confirm for the lawyer that he hadn't designed the typeface used in the letter until fourteen years later.

I have strong opinions about typefaces (one of the things I love about reading eighteenth-century books in their original editions is the clear handsome look of the pages, and the tactile appeal of the stamped pages--you can actually feel the contours where the metal imprinted the paper). I pretty much can't (well, won't) read a book printed in a sans-serif font. I also strongly dislike the typesetting of those English Faber books, it's OK for poetry but I can't stand it for prose. And it pains me to read a manuscript that's been printed with full justification rather than simply left-hand justification; I really feel it slows down my reading speed in an almost unbearable way. (If I live to be an old lady I will unleash all of my prejudices and become intolerably fussy and rude about these things. Another pet peeve, though it doesn't impinge on the actual experience of reading in the same way, is when publishers use that--I don't know what the proper name is--rough-edged cut on a new book. THIS IS THE TACKIEST THING IN THE WORLD. It's like, oh, having fake wood-grain formica on your kitchen walls. Books used to have those rough edges because of the way they were bound; you had to actually cut the folds of the signatures open with a paper-knife [and depending on your temperament you would either cut open a whole bunch of pages ahead or just cut as you went along--and one of the most ghostly things of reading books in a rare book collection is when you come up against the sealed-off-ness of a book whose pages have been only partially cut]. It is a horrible faux thing to make new books--which are not printed and bound in the same way at all--evilly ape that style.)


  1. I don't think there's a name for it beyond "rough edges", but I rather like it in my own pretentious way. And yes, there are definitely good fonts and bad fonts. I'm trying to phase out the Arial CJLC insignia that someone decided was a good idea back in the day. Sans-serif is just wrong.


  2. Deckle edges. By coincidence, I had a bit of a rant about them recently, too. Maybe we can have a blog campaign for their extermination. Loved the Wilkinson essay, also. I used to hate the font that the Library of America uses, because it looked comically bubble-shaped to me. But over the years either I acclimated or my astigmatism changed (or was better prescribed for), and now it seems fine. That calligraphy on the covers, though, is another story.

  3. Can't believe I missed that! Thanks for the link. Yours is more eloquent than mine. (And I HATE the squiggly calligraphy thing on the Library of America. And I also don't like it when they print novels with alternating narratives in multiple fonts, with one for each narrative. And... but don't get me started.)