Posts Tagged ‘typography’

Out of Bembo

November 15, 2011

I just got a copy of Out of Oz from the library, and the first thing I notice is that the typeface is back to the Truesdell of the original Wicked, rather than the always lovely but comparatively bourgeois and anodyne Bembo of Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men. I hope this means the book is as weird as the first one was.

A Lion Among Wicked Men

November 26, 2008

lion-among-men Zipping through the new books section of the library last week I came across Gregory Maguire’s A Lion Among Men, subtitled “Volume Three in the Wicked Years” (from which subtitle, new to the series—and from the fact that it introduces more threads than it seems likely to resolve—I conclude Maguire plans more Volumes in the Wicked Years). I’m now halfway through reading it aloud to the child. If you think the Wicked books are wholly inappropriate for reading aloud to one’s children, well, you’re right, but there it is.

As you’ve gathered from the title, the focus of the book is the Cowardly Lion, named Brrr, previously seen as a cub in Wicked. Brrr is (no surprise) not exactly a coward in the way of Burt Lahr, but more naive, dandified, and depressive. He comes by his sobriquet through his accidental involvement in the bloody suppression of a miners’ strike (emerald miners, that is), from which he acquires both fame and shame, as he only gradually realizes.

The story is framed by Brrr’s interview with Yackle, the mysterious crone and oracle from Wicked, on business is a Court Reporter for Emerald City magistrates, a position he seems not to have taken entirely voluntarily. She interrogates him more effectively than he interrogates her, and the bulk of the book is thus his life story, or parts of it. We also learn a little (to start with) more of her history. Meanwhile, the Clock of the Time Dragon lurks nearby…

I still haven’t figured out what I think of Maguire’s writing. I don’t mean whether it’s good—it’s very good—I mean whether I like his archly ironic juxtaposition of vaguely fantastical language with informal modern idiom, the dialogue that leaps from (intentionally) pompous fantasy-language to Victorian guttersnipe to street thug to modern American slang. Here’s the beginning of Brrr’s interview with Yackle:

It’s been a long time since I have seen Death this close up, he thought. This is Death refusing to die. She’s a centerfold for a mortuary quarterly.

“I was quite a looker in my time,” she said. Was she reading his mind, or only being smart, to know that she must be hideous?

“Oh had they invented time as long ago as that?”

“A comedian,” she observed. “I come back from the very gates of death to be interviewed by a vaudeville wannabe.”

“Let’s get started.” He flipped open his notebook. At the top of the page he wrote a note to himself: Interview One. Don’t Vomit.

And from Yackle:

“You want the three historic segments of my earthly life? I’ve lived through a good deal of these modern times, if you can call it living. I’d arrived, preaged and preshrunk, a crone at birth, just at the end of the Ozma regency, before Pastorius was deposed by the Wizard and the infant Ozma was secreted away, probably murdered…

“Following the Wizard’s abdication of the Throne, the brief and blameless twin interregnums—first of Lady Glinda, that bottle blonde, and the of the so-called Scarecrow, who came to power and left it again faster than a pile of autumn kindling responds to a winter torch.

Last year I (and the daughter) saw Wicked, The Musical (alas, in its touring incarnation, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel being long goine). It was, thought I, nothing like the book. The book was subtle, sad, disturbing, and deeply, deeply twisted, weird to the core. The play was none of those things. It was a musical about a green girl and her boyfriend, with (SPOILER ALERT!) a tacked-on happy ending. It only vaguely hinted at the intricate politics of Maguire’s Oz, at its complex societal structure, and above all at the otherworldly strangeness of it all. The characters themselves were (inevitably, in any transition from book to musical) flattened into caricatures: Glinda became a simple society airhead, Elphaba herself a bit of a wisecracker. The acrobatic flying monkeys were good, though, I’ll give it that.

A pretentious typographical note. Wicked (at least the edition I read) was set in  Truesdell, a reconstruction of a lost Frederic Goudy typeface, one of his more “hand-carved” designs. It’s a strange-looking font, that put me in mind of Grimm’s grim Fairy Tales, of kobolds and gremlins and dangerously mischievous faeries,  of ancient signs carved in walls of long-abandoned caves. It gave an already-strange book an even stranger affect. It may have been a bit much, but I liked it. I must be in the minority there, though, as the publishers changed the typeface for the sequels. Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men are set in Bembo. Now Bembo is a very fine typeface—one of my favorites—but it seems somehow earthbound after the creepy excess of Truesdell.

The Purpose-Driven Pastor

August 18, 2008

I failed to mention the other night that the real winner of Rick Warren’s “Civil Forum” was Rick Warren. He came across as articulate and intelligent, as a devout man of God, and as a genial regular guy you’d want to be your pal. Evangelicals already knew who he was and (as far as I know) held him in pretty high regard; but I should think this exposure will also score him major points with the rest of us. His affect is nothing like that of the vile televangelists that so sully evangelical Christianity’s reputation.

Since he apparently is on good terms with both candidates, I would imagine he’s headed towards being the next Billy Graham, only without the anti-Semitism.

Mind you, this is only based on my superficial observations on Saturday. I know little about him beyond that. I started reading one of his books once, but didn’t get very far; I didn’t find it all that interesting, and pretentious type weenie me had troubles with the dreadful font1

1Actually, it’s a fine display font, which is what it was intended to be. It’s dreadful only when abused as a text font.

The One

August 9, 2008

I’m loving the brouhaha about whether John McCain’s ad “The One” (best watched at his website) is in fact a coded message to America’s Dispensationalists that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. I think it’s hooey, but entertaining hooey.

Before I go into details, let me maintain my loony-left moonbat cred by saying that I absolutely think the McCain campaign is fully capable of suggesting that Obama is the Beast. Weird coded messages are nothing new to politics, certainly not to modern Republicans—remember W’s apparent non-sequitur about Dred Scott? And certainly McCain and his sinister minions have shown themselves to be no more impaired by Honor and Truth than were Bush and Rove (fortunately, they seem to be considerably less competent). I just don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I wonder if they now wish they had thought of it themselves, so they could have done a better job. But I don’t think they’re that good; the ad looks to me just like what they say it is.

Now to business. Something called “The Eleison Group” has a handy memo detailing the ad’s alleged antichristiness. The gist is that the ad’s imagery and text are so similar to those of the Left Behind books—featuring, of course, an antichrist politician—that the ad must be meant to refer to the books:

Viewers will notice how similar these very odd pictures that appear in the middle of the McCain ad are to the cover art and fonts of the Left Behind series, especially to the image, font, and colors of the final book in the series that would be most recent in reader’s memories.  The hidden images in the clouds and sun in the ad, which took a great deal of editing and are so strange that they had to be intentionally chosen and placed there by the McCain camp for their symbolic value, are of screaming, frantic crowds.

Mere coincidence? They think not!

I’ll be super-nerdy and start with the fonts (see the cover of the last Left Behind book here, and the ad at the link above). Yes, they look kinda similar. But then, all serif fonts look pretty much the same to most people. These do have one obvious superficial similarity—the serifless top vertices on the Ns and Ms—and they were both designed the same year (1989), but that’s about it.

The book jacket looks to me like it uses ITC Giovanni, designed by Robert Slimbach, who (quoting that description from Adobe) “based his design on classic oldstyle typefaces such as Garamond and Bembo.”

The ad uses Trajan, based not on oldstyle fonts but on Roman inscriptions. The differences are especially pronounced (I think) in the construction of the serifs, and in the spur and the  on the G, but lots of the proportions are pretty different too. Check ’em out (that’s the book title on the left, Trajan on the right):

lb-giovanni-sample lb-trajan-sample

OK, maybe they look the same to you, but they don’t to a proper type geek, and any proper conspiracy theory is going to have to assume McCain’s ad guys know their type. Perhaps more to the point is that Trajan is used a lot—it’s probably the typeface a designer would be most likely to use for a political ad if s/he just couldn’t be bothered to think about it. Using Trajan needs no explanation. Actually, if you want to connect it to the Left Behind books, you’d have to explain why they didn’t just use ITC Giovanni.

So that’s a bit of a digression, but I think it applies to the imagery as well. I just don’t see anything particularly odd in those “hidden images” that “took a great deal of editing.” They just don’t look that odd to me.


Again, if the McCain camp was really trying for some heavenly image here or allusion to God shining his light on Obama or to Obama shining his own light on the people, they would have used a different image. The classic and obvious image most viewers would recognize as divine would be of the white beam of light shining down from heaven (e.g., Monty Python or Simpsons spoofs). But this is an odd orange light surrounded by darkness. So why would they not go with the classic divine light imagery?

…and another has a stair leading to heaven.

Hm, a stairway… to heaven… Nope, no non-rapture-related cultural resonance there: that imagery could only have come from Left Behind! Seriously, I don’t think that picture (and the rest) are outside the mainstream of Messiah imagery. McCain and the Left Behind designers were drawing from the same image pool.

One more. Quoting from Amy Sullivan in Time:

Perhaps the most puzzling scene in the ad is an altered segment from The 10 Commandments that appears near the end. A Moses-playing Charlton Heston parts the animated waters of the Red Sea, out of which rises the quasi-presidential seal the Obama campaign used for a brief time earlier this summer before being mocked into retiring it. The seal, which features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign’s red-white-and-blue “O” logo. That confused Democratic consultant Eric Sapp until he went to his Bible and remembered that in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle.

That idiot seal was one of the Obama campaign’s silliest goofs, and the McCainiacs would certainly want to take every opportunity to remind us of it. I don’t know how many people will get the joke—I did—but even if they don’t, it does say “Obama” right on it, so it works in context anyway.

UPDATE: Had I looked even cursorily at McCain’s website I would have noticed that he (or his lackeys) use Trajan in lots of places. Definitely not Left Behind-specific.

UPDATE 2: Read the comments for more incoherently evolving thoughts.

Semi-colons, then and now

May 6, 2008

Via Language Log, here’s a blog post/article by Helen DeWitt about the horrors of copy-editing, or rather of having one’s work copy-edited. The experience sounds hellish, and makes me glad I’m not an actual writer who might some day have to endure that indignity. It’s also makes for entertaining reading, so by all means check it out it right now.

I write about that here because of the hook, and indeed the title, Cormac McCarthy & The Semi-Colon:

[McCarthy] said at one point he had a job, he was working for someone who was writing a book that included excerpts from 18th-century writers, and he was given an assignment: Go away and fix the punctuation. So he read the texts. The writing was wonderful, he said, but the punctuation, there were semi-colons cluttering up the sentences, so he started on an essay, a piece by, it might be, Swift, and he went through and fixed the punctuation, and he gave it back to the professor who said that’s just right. So he realised that punctuation was very important. He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things

Is that shocking, or what? Well, it shocked me. From what (very little, admittedly) I’ve seen of his writing, McCarthy does not strike me as someone who would take kindly to having his own punctuation “corrected.”

Like Ms. DeWitt, l like 18th-century punctuation, in 18th century texts. Punctuation is part of the language1, and changing it changes the style and character of the writing. The exact interpretations of commas and semi-colons have clearly changed a little since Swift’s time, but any confusion and distraction they cause us moderns is (to me) very minor compared to the violence wrought by removing them altogether. And at least in my experience it takes about a minute of reading to get past the distraction.

I freely admit that this line of thought of thing pretty quickly gets into murky areas. What about modernizing spelling, for example? Is that as important to the style as punctuation? And how abut typography? Are those long S‘s2 important to the gestalt of the day, or just annoying? How about the general equivalence of u’s and v’s in older typography? The abbreviation of “the” as “ye 3?” Capitalization and italicization practices? 18th-century orthography and typographical conventions are probably close enough to our own that those are minor points, but how about Shakespeare? The older the writing, the closer reading (or editing) it becomes to reading/translating a foreign language—by the time you get to Chaucer’s Middle English it is a foreign language—and I don’t pretend to have a line to draw

Anyway, I recently ran into an actual example of de-styling 18th-century prose. Inspired by an article in The New Yorker, I’ve started reading things by Royall Tyler. It’s great stuff, about which I hope to write much more later. For now I’ll say that I started with The Bay Boy, an uncompleted semi-autobiographical novel. I thought when I read it that it seemed awfully un-18th-century—the average sentence length was too short, and there just weren’t enough commas and semi-colons. I also worried that it might have been a bit bowdlerized—having also read the “shockingly blasphemous” (Jill Lepore’s words, from that New Yorker aritcle) poem The Origin of Evil, I knew what Tyler was capable of.

And indeed I now have confirmation! The Bay Boy was a reworking of the first part of The Algerine Captive, of which I found a facsimile edition. A couple of chapters are virtually identical between the two, and so provide a comparison. Here are a couple of passages, illustrating both stylistic dumbing-down and omission of classical references so as not to confuse us benighted moderns. (Caveat: I don’t know what changes Tyler himself might have made, but I strongly suspect nothing in these examples). First, a few passages from the modernized Bay Boy:

The same afternoon a tall, raw-boned man called me to the door, immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart whip over my head with the other. With fury in his face he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again. Aye, he would do it that moment if he was not afraid I would take the law on him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern and mixed with some of the young men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish, as the subject was race horses. I thought of famous horses in Greek history, but they had never heard of them…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me that I should wait on Miss Mina home. I declined. Rumors were spread about me throughout the town…

And the far more robust original:

The same afternoon, a tall raw-boned man called me to the door: immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart-whip over my head with the other, with fury in his face, he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again: ay, he would do it that very moment, if he was not afraid I would take the law of him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern, and mixed with some of the younger men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish; mine they could not comprehend. The subject of racehorses being introduced, I ventured to descant upon Xanthus, the immortal courser of Achilles. They had never heard of ’squire Achilles or his horse; but they offered to bet two to one that Bajazet, the Old Roan, or the deacon’s mare, Pumpkin and Milk, would beat him, and challenged me to appoint time and place…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me, that I might wait miss Mima home; but as I could recollect no word in the Greek which would construe into bundling, or any of Homer’s heroes who got the bag, I declined. In the Latin, it is true, that Æneas and Dido, in the cave, seem something like a precedent. It was reported all over town the next day, that master was a papish, as he had talked French two hours.

I am giving serous thought to seeing if I can spend a day at the Vermont Historical Society perusing Tyler’s original manuscripts.

1 Of the written language, that is, but we’re talking about writing here. Written and spoken languages are obviously different—in interesting ways—but I’m not competent to say much about that.

2 Long s looks like the letter f, but doesn’t have a whole crossbar, just a nub on the left side, or nothing at all: ſ.

3 That “y” was originally a thorn (þ).

Metal vs Digital Fonts

March 30, 2008

I seem to be on fonts now.

I just ran across an article entitled, “Why Bembo Sucks.” Intrigued–I love Bembo, I think it’s one of the very nicest of typefaces (also, see this!)–I read it, and found that it’s really about “why digital fonts (often) suck” and “why inappropriate and poorly used fonts suck.” It’s a great article; if you’re into this sort of thing, go read it now. One of the main points is that digital fonts tend to be pale and lifeless imitations of their metal originals (many of which, including Bembo, are in turn copies of much older and quirkier typography).

This seemingly superfluous dilemma [which original point size of a metal font to digitize] can only be truly understood when the original metal typefaces are seen in print. Oh, what a joyous sight! The subtle variation of letterform, the slight impression into the paper, the vibrant warmth of a page of text. It is not only beautiful, but an absolute delight to read. The effect of these typefaces is impossible to emulate with their insipid digital ghosts. Modern printing has become so perfect, so uniform and precise that the spirit of the original is crushed. It is like spending a lifetime slurping instant coffee and never experiencing a proper espresso.

That’s a well-known problem with digital typefaces. The great Edward Tufte even went so far as to design his own digital Bembo, having found Monotype’s existing digitization unbearable (there is now what looks like a better one).

Not long ago I was struck by this when reading two books, both set in Fairfield, back-to-back. Here are two examples from books I just picked up off the pile on our coffee table:



Maybe you can’t tell from my lousy scans, but I find the older one much livelier and more interesting. The newer one also doesn’t bother with the double-f ligatures (lazybones typesetters!).

How nerdly am I for noticing this?

March 30, 2008

While typing that last post, I noticed a typographical pun(!): my old copy of the Oresteia is set in Electra. I really hope that was on purpose.