Years ago when I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I had a mentor who promoted me from a type-up-rejection-letters-and-sort-through-unsolicited-slush assistant to a "real" editor with some responsibility for finding and publishing books. There'd been hot competition for that one slot, as I recall, and for a couple of years afterwards (during my trial by fire) I wondered why I'd gotten that job when it would have been so much easier for the Powers That Be to promote people who were more outgoing, better looking, more natural schmoozers, and so forth.
Finally I asked the question, and the answer surprised me. My mentor (RIP to that amazing man) told me that I had a gift for bringing out the best in a writer without getting my own ego too involved in the process. He added, as an afterthought, "And you have a good eye for type."
Back in the days when these things mattered a bit more (or maybe they never did, and I'm just showing my age), I had an eagle eye for typos and for type that didn't quite work on a page. We're talking really picayune stuff here, like instantly knowing when a typesetter/compositor had incorrectly hyphenated a word. I was a real bear about not allowing widow or orphan lines (which stand by themselves at the top or bottom of a page), plus a bitch about grammar (I guess I still am, to some degree). I'm one of those geeks who always reads the "Note on the Type" that's included at the end of many nicely published books (Knopf always includes such a page, as far as I can tell. And the fact that the type note is on a page by itself - not packed onto an already crammed copyright page or elsewhere - speaks a world about Knopf's approach to book design).
So, in other words, I have always had an affinity for type. Typography is essential to the art of the book, and with thousands of fonts to choose from nowadays, it's pretty easy for a design to go wrong. This is one of my frustrations with the e-readers. They take beautiful products and reduce them to four or five overused fonts, often with bizarre spacing. Is it the content that matters? Of course it does, but right now the e-readers seem to me to be almost completely utilitarian. Designers' abilities to make the most of an e-reader screen may improve in the future, but I foresee technical troubles. We've got the art of the book (designing, printing) more or less mastered at this point, so that what readers get is pretty much what we want them to get. But with all the compatibility issues that plague the Mac vs. PC world, the requirements imposed by various different e-book retailers (I can tell you from experience that they each require files to be tweaked in different, and extremely time-consuming, ways, to make them readable on a screen), and so forth, I have a feeling that e-books will often end up falling into the "good enough" category - The book looks good enough on the screen (i.e., doesn't have anything too crazy going on), so we leave it as is rather than futzing with the file and running the risk of completely destroying it.
So, when I heard about the publication of Simon Garfield's JUST MY TYPE, I had to get the book. Wht exactly is the book all about? you may ask. Some of the more critical reviews have argued that the book really has no organizing principle. It's not a walk through the fonts, or a chronological history, or a manifesto. What it is, as the subtitle states, is "a book about fonts." It falls into the category of an appreciation for typography, fonts, book designers, and those who painstakingly design fonts (usually for little financial gain). The UK cover is at the upper left; the US cover is below. I confess that I prefer the US cover, which seems more dignified and more in keeping with Garfield's approach to fonts.
I'm not sure it's the right book for those with no background in typography, as it does assume some knowledge of the basics, which are surpisingly complicated. Garfield attempts to describe the key elements of type (ascenders, descenders, serifs, x-heights, bowls, and so on), but the illustrations don't help much with the basics. Instead, the illustrations are a quirky mixture of the fonts themselves, the people who created them, and their use (often in signage or advertising). The fonts you see everywhere - even if you don't know their names - are included here, in just enough detail to flesh out their histories: Gill Sans, Comic Sans, Univers, Helvetica, Gotham, Zapf Dingbats, Futura, Palatino...
And the stories are epic (not a word frequently used to describe typography, and therein lies the paradox of typography: For most books, the best fonts - which a lot of us call "Old School" fonts - are those that don't call attention to themselves, and see their mission as the clear communication of language or content). If you read JUST MY TYPE, you'll be treated to the following:
- The abomination that is Comic Sans, perhaps the world's most misused type, and a cautionary tale about non-experts using fonts in ways they were never intended to be used
- The story of Doves, a font created by Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, who threw the font into the Thames (a few pieces each day) rather than bequeath it to his former business partner
- The inside story of the ampersand (actually, an "e" and a "t" combined) and the interrobang (which, lamentably, hasn't really made the cut)
- How a font - Gotham - may have helped Barack Obama get elected in 2008
- The way a French government agency (HADOPI), charged with promoting copyright protection on the Internet, came very close to launching its campaign with a stolen font
One of the things I really enjoyed about the book is Garfield's ability to describe fonts with such clarity and precision. So much of good writing is about having the vocabulary you need to communicate, and Garfield writes about fonts not only with affection, but also with a flair for describing each font's quirks, oddities, and staying power. The book comes with an introduction by Chip Kidd, longtime Knopf designer - and it's the type of book you just like to look at, touch, and page through. I think it's done pretty well, which I find heartening. Like books that are about books (I'm thinking THE THIRTEENTH TALE, a huge hit from a few years ago), JUST MY TYPE seems to be saying: "I'm a [printed, physical] book - I'm here to stay." Amen.