Reading & roses

If you don’t read poetry, you won’t find the roses while looking for the puppy jobby. If you don’t read poetry, you won’t notice the lace wing that lands on your window, or suddenly appears on your bedroom wall in the late winter. Someone I was working with smirked when I told them I was writing a spoof piece (after the Onion) about reading being good for the brain, and said that music is what stimulates all parts of the brain, don’t you know, you’ve heard them speak of the music by Mozart? Of course, and I was a musician for many years, and know of the way different pitches, bass, mid range, treble, etc, stimulate different parts of the body. I also know a student that told me she felt inclined or inspired to write when she read a good book, or got an idea to make an image in paint, or was inspired to make up some music, after reading poetry.  Does it seem so far-fetched that reading inspires writing as well as doing other creative things? Being creative does not only come from the creative genius of an individual mind above all others. Creative writer Scott Hartmann ( page 25, Why We Write, July-August, Poets & Writers) writes, “I’ve never found an art form that touches me—or that I can touch people with—more powerfully than the written word.”

Reading can be difficult when a book is poorly designed. An author and I were talking the other day, and he told me about a book of poetry that was designed using a typeface something like Gothic Bold or Helvetica Bold for the text. This is something that should never be done. Most typefaces were designed for reading, most text or book faces, are designed with reading in mind. Every letter is designed to integrate with the rest of the alphabet. The eye has adapted to reading these faces. Even new faces that are designed using some older form has reading as it’s purpose, either for display or for text. Text should never be composed of display faces, or all caps, or faces that were designed for signage, or subways, or for advertising. Display faces are what newspapers use to head articles, or books use for titling, chapter openings at best.

Most book faces are based on ‘old style’ or ‘transitional faces’ from earlier centuries. Originally these faces, take Bembo for instance, were designed for printing books, and the styles were based on earlier innovations in hand writing, and took into consideration how they would appear when printed on the laid paper used in printing books of the time. Their display faces were usually larger sizes of the face in Roman or Italic, and every size was designed, drawn and cut in metal punches. The designer and punch cutter knew that each size had to have individual adjustments made to it. The metal punches were then punched into the copper matrices to be used in the hand-held mold for type casting. Each individual piece of type was cast in this way, usually quantities of each letter being cast while the mat or matrix was in the mold. Bembo also has a short alphabet length, and so it was used quite often because it actually meant you could fit more text on a page and make the book a bit shorter. Not to mention that it is a very good-looking typeface.

After casting, each type had to be cleaned and planed to be as near to exactly the same for setting by hand in composition sticks. The text would be set on a line length determined for the entire book, except in the case of marginal text or extracts, and placed in galleys, later to be made into pages, according to the book design. The pages were then imposed according to the size of the sheet of paper and how it would be folded into signatures, gathered and sewn for the binding of the book. A lot of people spent a lot of time making books this way for a lot of years. So it kind of comes down to “don’t fix what’s not broken.”

A stick of Ludlow mats ready for casting

And there is more to this integrated topic of type and book design. You may have noticed that the New York Times Magazine changed its look sometime over the past several years, so that now much of it is set in two columns or maybe three to a page, instead of four or more, like a lot of magazines and newspapers did for a long time for various reasons, partly due to the limitations of metal type machine composition. So when the New York Times Magazine determined, or a designer of stature recommended this change, it was due to the rule of thumb that designers for over a century or more knew about, good designers know, that a sentence is most easily read when it has at least nine words in it. Anything less and the eye is quivering around on the page and this kind of reading has the effect on the eye similar to what they warn can happen while playing action computer games. I never liked reading magazines much for this reason, and found out why when I studied book design and printing history.

Look at these books, to name a few: William Morris – The Ideal Book page 75, (University of California Press); Jan Tschichold: typographer by Ruari McLean (Godine); Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing by Joseph Moxon (Dover)