Winter 2005

Last night I dreamt a page set in Bitstream Futura

Book Typography

By Ari Rafaeli. Oak Knoll / British Library, £25, USD 34.95

Book Typography is a brief, dense tour around the processes of typesetting texts for books. Plunging in at the deep end, the first of five chapters provides 22 pages on word-spacing, arguing in particular for the virtues of close spacing. The second chapter discusses the page and the elements that go to make it up. Then – as light relief? – comes an ironic, sometimes sarcastic discussion of two recent books on his themes, by Richard Hendel and Robert Bringhurst. ‘Points of style’ considers mainly punctuation and matters of house style. Finally, ‘Types for books’ is a discussion of available types, ordered chronologically according to the historical model that each takes.

Book Typography is too mute as a title for what the book actually is. Ari Rafaeli’s opening words hint towards a much clearer description. He writes that it ‘presents a personal view of modern book typography but it is also intended to instruct.’ It is indeed both highly personal and potentially instructive, though I wonder how intelligible the book can be for anyone who has not been immersed in the topic for years. Rafaeli is the typesetter and de facto editor of his own book. All the examples of books illustrated are sourced from his own collection, and one of the illustrations is a page of his unpublished diaries which, he informs us, he writes directly in Quark XPress, ‘set in 11/13 Monotype Plantin in a 27-picas measure.’

The high level of craftsmanship evident in the setting of Book Typography argues for Rafaeli’s credibility. But the absence of an editor, who could have prompted him to set his subject in some context and explain it more clearly, is quite a burden. Assertions are frequently qualified in brief ‘afterthought’ footnotes, which could have been written into the main text. Sometimes these are placed in the end-notes, which seem to be mainly reserved for bibliographical references. But sometimes these references to books are given in footnotes. I had almost given up in frustration when (on page 43) I found Rafaeli’s charming rationale for this division of material, in which he admits it’s a muddle. Midway down that page is a prize sentence: 76 words without punctuation, apart from two clauses enclosed in parentheses.

Rafaeli may live and work in Chicago, but his book is extraordinarily British. He seems to have read and digested the literature of British typography from the period 1920-2000. More, he knows and loves such worthy and now obscure British writers as Geoffrey Grigson, James Lees-Milne and Rayner Heppenstall. Again there is a lack of editorial consciousness in not explaining it, but this culture is part of the substance of his book. The house style advocated and exemplified here is British, not North American. The chapter on type centres on the typefaces made by British companies – Monotype and Linotype – in the years between the two world wars. A brief closing paragraph mentions the types made since 1990 specifically for digital composition, which goes some way towards repairing the recent lack of adequate book types that Rafaeli rightly complains about. In his mind, if not in his colophon, Rafaeli seems to prefer his co-publisher (the British Library) to the company that commissioned and produced the book (Oak Knoll).

This is an intriguing, sometimes baffling book. It gives a good taste of the subtle work of setting text, and yet it shows some of the ways in which ‘that way madness lies’ – for example, when Rafaeli reports his quarrel with Richard Hendel over the use of a wrong-font comma in the latter’s book (a Galliard comma had been inserted into a Garamond font). I read this book at one sitting. That night I dreamed of a page set in Bitstream Futura.

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