This is the third piece of a four-part series on the anatomy of books. Most of these observations are taken from my own experience and library of knowledge. The thoughts below are not written from the perspective of a typologist but from an avid reader who appreciates carefully curated type.
Now we delve past the skin and organs, straight into the bones that hold the text together: the type. Here are ten thoughts on typefaces and typography:
The term “typography” comes from the Greek roots τύπος and γραφία, meaning “impression” and “writing.” This most likely references the use of seals and stamps in early printing presses, but it’s also embedded in the modern era: fonts have personalities, so to speak, and they form either gentle or forceful impressions on us.
Before the arrival of woodblock printing and moveable type, manuscripts were handwritten (side note: illuminated manuscripts). Fonts are not created by computers; they come from the rough flesh and guidance of human hands.
Serif fonts are designed to be easier to read in paragraphs and long text. The tiny base and top lines (the “serifs”) allow your eyes to drag across letters without the need to jump or shift. Sans-serif fonts are catchier and tend to pop out, especially when juxtaposed to serifs, which is why they’re more often used for signs and titles.
The first time I read Le Avventure di Pinocchio was through the photocopied sheets from my teacher’s book. The words were neatly set, resembling Fournier and its elegant italics. When I decided it was time to purchase my own copy, I bought the title on a whim off of Amazon (terrible idea). The book arrived, a flimsy thing with a plastic cover, and I flipped to the first chapter only to be greeted by a gaudy sans serif font. Blech. Since then, I’ve stuck to the crinkled, stapled copies of my teacher’s decade-old, spine-cracked edition.
For the visual learners: “The History of Typography,” beautifully retold in stop-motion.
When you read, your eyes become acquainted with the type—that is to say, the type becomes your silent companion throughout the dips and ascents of a story. I watched Scout Finch grow up through a stock mass market paperback font. I followed Lyman Ward’s tale of his grandparents through the bold, tightly packed transitional serif family, Fairfield LH. I met Johnny Mnemonic through old style type cut with modern edges, fused with back-screen digital slang.
I have a small fascination with monospaced fonts. You won’t find these in the average book, but you may recognize them as “typewriter fonts,” such as Courier and Prestige Elite. These are surprisingly effective for use in writing—as in, sitting down at the computer and writing down a tempest without distractions—because the mechanical contours of these fonts allow little room for romanticizing the physical text. They force you to channel that energy into pure thought and gritty work (perhaps the old nostalgia of typewriters is a part of the effect, too).
From a wide-angle lens, typography is a trivial subject pursued by detail-oriented designers and obsessed fanatics (yours truly). Who cares about ligatures, kerning, the differences between Caslon and Jenson? Isn’t reading supposed to be about the stories and the words, not the appearance of words? Isn’t the objective of typography to be unobtrusive? And yet, therein lies its unassuming beauty, because when you want the words, the type allows your eyes to glaze over and snatch phrases, but when you want the letters, the poppies and dandelions push from the cracks of concrete: the o p e n n e s s of spaced all-caps headings, the sleek title in Futura, the slant and curve of long, unfurled italics.