Week 2: Typefaces, Balance, & Reading

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This week we explored fonts and typefaces. We of coursed joked about using Comic Sans and Papyrus then got down to business. Prof. Bernie shared some pages from early printed manuscripts and the class began learning the history and vocabulary of type organized around the two main spacing elements, leading and kerning.

Our assignment this week was to pick 5 books and copy a double page spread with the beginning of a new chapter. We were to examine and comment on the effect of the type,  ornaments, placement, and other items.

Picking five books proved to be agonizing. There are thousands of books in my home. Since grade school when I did my duty to keep Scholastic in business, I have been a collector (read that hoarder) of books. And a borrower of books as well. I also have a full deck of library cards, from every place I have lived and many places I have visited, because you never know, I might want to go back some day and visit my old friends waiting there on the shelves.

I also worked in a couple of bookstores, ostensibly for extra income, though in reality it turned out to be an easy way to maintain my habit. The bookseller’s discount puts expensive books within reach and the books you might pass up all of a sudden fit in your budget. And I wasn’t confined to what was on the shelves; I could always special order books, opening up a whole world of the written word, at my fingertips. I could own every book.

A few years ago, I shared my experience of walking into my first big library, at Boston University, with my partner and fellow poet Michael Brown. I related that feeling of awe at the sheer number of books on countless shelves on several floors reaching up and up and that awful-wonderful-agoraphobic moment of thinking, how will I ever read all of these?

And so there I stood in front of one of our bookshelves trying to choose 5 books. A couple of years ago, I noticed that I was reading a lot of text, mostly confined to periodicals and online sources, but not reading books, real books, with spines. I had let this pleasure go, mainly because I had gotten busy with my job, editing, writing, and living, all had conspired to push reading books for pleasure down the priority list. It didn’t stop me from buying them, because when I had time I would surely pick this up and get back to it. So there were a lot of unread books on my shelves. I made a resolution and went through the shelves then and picked 12 books, more or less at random and set myself the task of reading one book a month for a year. Well, I read the first book in three days. The next one took a couple of weeks, and so on. The stack thinned out quickly, so I had to add more. The ever evolving stack is still there, with the books I want to read next replacing the ones I just finished. The stack and a promise to myself keep me going.

5 books. Poetry books first. Then put them back—not the right design elements, and poetry books don’t usually have chapters. Next pass, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, again focused on design elements, and then I stepped back, chagrined. I had chosen five books by male authors (mea culpa, VIDA). I can do better than that. Back to the shelves. Three books by women, two by men, a good mix, if mostly non-fiction: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin, The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture by Terry O’Reilly, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, and Shelf Life by Suzanne Strempek Shea.

Long view first: all of the books achieve a balance of text and space. They are all professionally done. The typefaces are easy to read, if a little on the decorative side for The Shipping News. The typefaces match the content. The New Jim Crow is straightforward, matching the gravity of the book. The type of Shelf Life is a bit more relaxed, The Children’s Blizzard appears to have more space, befitting this story of the Great Plains, and The Age of Persuasion looks like an advertising spread with a bold graphic chapter number dominating the page. The New Jim Crow uses no ornament. The Shipping News uses ornaments depicting seaman’s knots throughout the text. The Children’s Blizzard incorporates what look like nineteenth century printer’s ornaments in place of where a drop cap might be found to begin the chapter. Shelf Life has my favorite ornament, with the chapter numbers depicted as a line drawing of books, spine out, with chapter one having a single book, and so on. The Age of Persuasion features an enormous drop cap on the verso page, approximately equivalent to twelve lines of type in height. On the recto page is a quote, plus the large chapter number.  All of the books are black text on white except The Age of Persuasion, which settles into various tones on the grey scale, with lighter text on darker ground.

This was a good exercise, to step back from the words and look at the design of the page. Book publishers and designers often use Lorem Ipsum, Latin text (though I’ve heard it called “Greeking the text”) to fill the spaces where text goes without drawing your attention to the meaning of the words (unless you’re fluent in Latin, in which case you may enjoy reading bits from The Extremes of Good and Evil, written by Cicero in 45 BC). There are dozens of versions of mock Lorem Ipsum, but my favorite is still the basic Latin text. Visit http://www.lipsum.com/ to generate lines or paragraphs of Lorem Ipsum to use for projects. Here is what Lorem Ipsum looks like:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nullam tristique risus non augue placerat, sed consectetur neque euismod. In tristique arcu eu neque aliquam sollicitudin. Donec ultricies dapibus lorem eget rutrum. Vestibulum eget risus nec arcu elementum placerat. Nam ligula eros, euismod vel ultricies at, porttitor vitae eros. Mauris vehicula malesuada nisi, vel facilisis justo dictum sit amet. Nullam viverra ligula eleifend sapien sagittis, vel hendrerit purus faucibus. Morbi sed porttitor nibh. Aliquam accumsan accumsan odio non elementum. Pellentesque convallis viverra lacus, vel cursus augue fringilla posuere.

It is easy to understand why this dummy text is used. Try not focusing on the text of a book like The Shipping News. “The sun hung on the rim of the sea. Its flattened rays gilded the wet stones. Combers seethed under a strip of corn-yellow sky.” In just a few short sentences, I am transported to a beach in Newfoundland where the aunt is sending Warren, the dog, off to a watery grave….

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Reading the text of The House of Yorke continues. We will be dividing up into groups to begin the tasks of creating a book in the next week or two. I think I signed up for the comma team this week.

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