Typefaces past

Saturday June 27, 2009 @ 12:33 AM (UTC)

Many of us, myself included, have only a consumer’s knowledge of book design. It’s like chocolate cake: I’ve eaten many and have some opinions and fond memories, but I’ve never made one. (No, box cakes don’t count!) I think it’s easy for those of us who aren’t in the publishing industry to forget how much effort goes into choosing typefaces, layout and style for a book.

Two things brought the topic to mind of late: Jay Lake tweeted a link to this Lit Slits quiz. Of course most of the clues to the books’ identity come from the actual words the ‘slit’ reveals. However, in at least one case, I knew the author and series immediately: whether or not you like Harry Potter, he’s got some lovingly designed, distinctive books. Even without the chapter headers in their zany serifs, the page brings the memory back to anyone who’s read those books.

That’s what amazes me: how evocative the shape of a few letters can be, even when I couldn’t recall them at will or describe them to you. It’s like a more subtle version of the way smell brings memory in its train. I open my own copy of a beloved book and each previous reading is present in my eye on the page, my fingertips on the paper.

I’m reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness right now. I picked up this copy at Ravenna Third Place Books. It’s used, hardback, and it’s been on some journeys – it bears a Portuguese stamp from a bookshop in Brazil. And best of all, it’s from a book club.

Oh, I know, that means it’s not collectible. It may mean the covers aren’t as durable, and all sorts of things. But this book is typeset exactly like the oldest of my dad’s book club books – books like Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. It feels the same, smells the same. This is 100% pure old-school science fiction, and it fills me with nostalgia, even though the story is new to me.

What books carry this extra meaning for you? Are there books whose beautiful design adds to your love for them?


I just picked up Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. It felt good in my hands: solid, refined, nothing loose or uneven. Textured gold/brown endpapers, with the text block having a smooth, slightly powdery feel. I took off the cover, an hour after buying it, and discovered they’d gone to the trouble of covering the spine in little gilt circles. For an ordinary mass-produced hardcover, this one hits the mark.

William Morrow did a neat job of it, and I think the combination of good bookmaking and the story itself (which, in my humble opinion, is thus far fantastic), makes it a book I’ll keep forever.

Although there must be exceptions (like the hypothetical book in this comment by Teresa Nielsen Hayden) I think a really gorgeous book design is often the result of a series of people at the publishing company who really believe in the book. Cynically, there may be cases where they only believe in it economically, but I think often when you open a beautiful book in the store, you get the strong feeling that it’s been made with love. Another layer of communication between those who make the book and those who read it.

I just returned from a trip to Old City Philly, where I discovered a nice, overstuffed used book shop. They had a handsome five-volume Everyman’s Library edition of the complete works. I must say, I really like the Everyman’s Library series. They’re a nice size that’s comfortable in your hands, and have lovely, thin, creamy paper stock. Plus, the ribbon bookmarks sewn into the binding are a nice touch.

I also have definite favorite and least favorite editions of Shakespeare. For single works, I like the New Folger’s Library series. I like having the notes on the facing page, and the woodcuts and such from the Folger collection are fun. On the other end of the scale, the Oxford editions drive me a little crazy. It’s more an editing thing than a book design thing, but the sheer volume of often esoteric notes kind of gets on my nerves. I also have a single volume complete works that I picked up at some point because it was cheap. The paper is far too thick for the number of pages, and it’s not very well proportioned. The whole thing is about the size of a cinder block. Also, it’s a paperback with a pretty low-quality binding. It suffices for reference, but it’s not very friendly if you actually wanted to read a play.

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