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Typographer’s lament

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Browsing through a local bookstore yesterday, I kept picking up interesting-looking new books and opening them, only to put them down again when I saw the inside typography. An uninviting text page can put off any reader; it’s just that as a typographer and a book designer, I can tell exactly what it is that puts me off.

Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, in Penguin trade paperback: typeset in an overly contrasting version of Baskerville (probably ITC New Baskerville, though I couldn’t be sure), in lines that were two or three picas too wide for comfortable reading. John Crowley’s The Solitudes, in the newly reprinted edition from Overlook, is set in Rotis Serif, a typeface that looks superficially attractive but consists of a mismatched set of letterforms in which the most common letters are quirky and draw attention to themselves.

The Landmark Herodotus sounded fascinating: a spacious volume, informatively annotated, bedecked with useful maps. But its text type appears light and blotchy throughout. The typeface is Matthew Carter’s excellent ITC Galliard, but it looks like the early Adobe version, which was indifferently digitized and has a poorly spaced italic. The numbers are all set in lining uppercase numerals, jutting up to full cap height, instead of old-style lowercase numerals, as befits any text, and especially a translation of a classic. In addition, the page design doesn’t quite fit the binding; it’s a thick book, and the gutters are too narrow, which would make reading uncomfortable.

I found one fine exception: Maps: finding our place in the world, edited by James R. Ackerman and Robert W. Karrow (University of Chicago Press). The typeface is Dolly, which is robust and easily readable in extended text, and the page design uses it effectively. That one I might actually buy. It’s the shame the same designers didn’t take on the Herodotus.

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