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Archive for the category ‘books’

Reading Le Guin

Published

A few months back, I got the second two-volume set of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work in the Library of America, “The Hainish Novels and Stories.” (She is one of the very few writers to have their work published in the Library while still living.) Since then, I’ve been rereading these stories, or in a very few cases reading them for the first time. All of Le Guin’s fiction, even the earliest work, stands up to rereading; that’s one of the things I value about it. Her sensibility and her care for language have spoken to me from the moment I first encountered them, when I happened upon Rocannon’s World on the revolving wire paperback rack in a stationery store. (The book was an Ace Double, back-to-back with Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign.)

As I read through this collection, I thought about how much the late Susan Wood would have appreciated it. First of all, Susan would have been delighted to see Le Guin’s work in the Library of America. Even more, though, I think she would have appreciated the later stories. Before Susan’s death in 1980, I can remember her lamenting that Le Guin had yet to write “the Hainish novel”: that is, a novel about the Hainish themselves, from their own perspective, not just about the many cultures that their ancestors had spawned. While Le Guin may not have written quite what Susan was anticipating, she did come back, after a gap of several years, to write a series of late stories that delved ever deeper into the culture and psychology of the Hainish and their interaction with the rest of humanity.

Susan and I both met Ursula at the same time, in August 1975, in Melbourne, where both Ursula and Susan were guests of honor at the first World Science Fiction Convention to be held in Australia. Later, Susan edited Le Guin’s first book of essays, The Language of the Night. Susan was a passionate scholar and an enthusiastic teacher. (At the University of British Columbia, and at earlier universities where she had taught, she created courses on science fiction and Canadian literature – both of which were looked on skeptically by the English department and both of which brought in large numbers of enthusiastic students.) Her introduction to Language of the Night was a major essay that she worked long and hard on, situating Le Guin’s writing and presenting it afresh to a thinking audience.

It’s entirely possible that, had Susan lived, she would have been the one to write the introduction to Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories for the Library of America. I like to think so.

When I first started reading that volume, last winter, and started musing about how much Susan would have enjoyed it, I thought I ought to mention it to Ursula. She would appreciate it, I was sure. But I was slow to act; Ursula had been in poor health, and in January she died. I never managed to share that particular insight.

In June, I had the bittersweet pleasure of attending the celebration of Ursula’s life, in Portland, Oregon. It filled the magnificent Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and after a star-studded program of appreciations, ended with a dragon parading up onto the stage and then out into the street. Her long-time home town certainly knew how to celebrate Ursula K. Le Guin.

Flexible typesetting

Published

As soon as I saw the title of Tim Brown’s new book, Flexible typesetting, I knew it was on a subject that was close to my heart.

I spent more than thirty years perfecting the art and craft of text typography using digital tools, showing that if you knew what you were doing you could create every bit as fine a book page digitally as you could with metal type. (Not to mention exceeding the low standards of phototypesetting.) And I’ve spent more than a decade translating that craft into pages of fixed typography for the screen, trading concerns about ink and paper for the strictures of resolution and screen size.

Now we’re at the next stage. The challenge today, as I’ve pointed out more than once, is not fixed pages at all, but flexible ones. Tim Brown’s new book focuses clearly and tightly on how to meet that challenge.

Instead of talking about pre-set margins and fixed point sizes, Brown speaks of ideas like pressure, tempo, and focus, creating what he calls “a pattern language of typesetting pressures.” His approach to typesetting for the screen deals with variables rather than fixed values, and he gives a finely detailed look at how to set those variables and how to think about them. Much of the book deals with those details, but his main point is to make people aware of the problems and of the tools we currently have (or will have soon) to solve them. It is, first and foremost, an introduction to how to think about flexible typesetting.

One of the tools that Brown presents us with is the modular scale, which is a concept that takes a little while to get used to. It’s a set of numbers that you can use in setting the sizes of both type and other elements of a design. Obviously, if the design is to be flexible, those sizes can only be starting points; but you can use the modular scale to set the rate at which sizes grow or shrink as conditions change. This scale-based system is designed to make the variables all feel naturally related. Brown offers several different modular scales, for different kinds of projects.

This book is full of very specific recommendations and explanations, with links to useful tools created by himself and other web designers; it will be a very pragmatic guide to anyone sitting down to practice flexible typesetting in a hands-on environment. It’s also an eloquent plea for developing better and more finely tuned tools for the future.

Tim Brown’s conclusion: “Typography is ours to shape.”

[Flexible typesetting, by Tim Brown. A Book Apart no. 27. Copyright 2018 by Tim Brown. New York: A Book Apart, 2018.]

Sam Hamill

Published

Sam Hamill would have turned 75 on May 9. He had planned to celebrate his birthday with a publication party for his final book, After Morning Rain, on May 15, but in the end he realized that his health wasn’t going to last long enough to do it. Sam died a month before the planned event. It went ahead, however, on a more informal basis, as a remembrance and celebration of Sam and a welcome for his last book.

I’m now reading that book. I’ve been reading it slowly, parceling out the poems, making it last. It’s filled with little gems, of feeling, observation, appreciation, lament – the distilled sensibility of a poet at the end of his life. Sam always felt that he was in conversation with the great poets of the past, especially those of ancient China and Japan; some of the poems in After Morning Rain explicitly echo that:

Coming to It

A midnight cup of sake,
a strange solitude.
Is this all I’ve become?

Old and alone, bending
over a poem
written in loneliness
by some old Chinese
bag o’ bones
more than a thousand years ago.

The book is a small, beautiful volume, designed by and with a cover painting by Ian Boyden.

Sam was an evocative, insightful, lyrical poet, like his mentor Kenneth Rexroth. He was also, like Rexroth, a world-class curmudgeon. There’s bitterness, but also love, in Sam’s last poems. He transcended his own life through his work and his art.

Sam was an exacting and generous editor, and that’s where his greatest influence may lie. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press and was editor there for nearly thirty years, bringing innumerable books of fine poetry by greats and unknowns into print in the United States. That has been an important part of our cultural life.

I’m not sure when I first met Sam, but I came to know him when Loren MacGregor and I were publishing the short-lived Pacific Northwest Review of Books in 1977 & 1978. Sam was enormously helpful and encouraging to us in our efforts. I well remember the interview with Sam and his then-partner Tree Swenson that was conducted and submitted to us by a new writer; when we showed Sam the draft, he exclaimed grumpily, “I speak in paragraphs, dammit!” and insisted on correcting it – to the great benefit of our readers.

I’ve had the pleasure of designing several of Sam’s books, beginning with Passport, a collaboration with the artist Galen Garwood, which was published by Broken Moon Press in 1989. I’ve designed books of essays by Sam (Basho’s Ghost, A Poet’s Work) and poetry (Destination Zero). I always tried to give his work the typographical clothing that it deserved.

In 1993, I got a call from Sam, out of the blue. “Would you like to help me design a book?” He and Tree had just split up, and she had been the designer of Copper Canyon’s books. That early casual-sounding request led to my designing all of Copper Canyon’s books and collateral for the next five years (and several more at various times after that). As I said at the time, I was trying to live up to the standards that Tree had set, making each book recognizably a Copper Canyon book while letting each one take its own form and shape. And I was trying to maintain Sam’s vision with each book, often working with paintings that he had chosen for the covers. I like to think I succeeded reasonably well. I felt that those were books that would be worth reading a hundred years from now.

Ars longa, vita brevis.

[Images, top to bottom: After Morning Rain, designed by Ian Boyden; Sam Hamill; Destination Zero, designed by John D. Berry; Sacramental Acts, Kenneth Rexroth, designed by John D. Berry.]

Farewell to Jack the printer

Published

“The splendid dawns — how many more of them will the gods toss into your basket of days?”

– Horace, Carminum Liber IV, trans. Michael Taylor

Jack Stauffacher died on Nov. 16, a month shy of his 97th birthday. He was both fiercely opinionated and self-deprecating; when he called you up, he would simply say, “This is Jack, the printer.” But what a printer!

I saw him for the last time just three weeks before he died, when Dennis Letbetter took me and Rob Saunders over to Tiburon for lunch with Jack and his wife Josie at their small house. The conversation ranged all over the place, as it always did, from ideas to reminiscences to literature and craft, but I was there for a purpose: to ask Jack questions about his life and career, for the biographical essay I’ve been asked to write. This essay will appear in a book by Chuck Byrne about Jack’s experimental prints, to be published next year by Letterform Archive. And, of course, I was there because I suspected that it might be my last chance to see Jack.

While I was there, Jack gave me a copy of his last book, a beautifully designed volume of “fragments from a Tuscan diary, 1956–1958,” which he had entitled Oxen. Plough. Bicycle. It is fully in the tradition of Jack Stauffacher’s long book-design and printing career, simple and unadorned yet exquisitely arranged. Its contents consist of photographs that he took while bicycling around the countryside outside Florence when he was living there on a Fulbright scholarship; the photographs are complemented by notes, almost poems – phrases and sentences of reflection on where he was and what he was seeing. It’s a fitting culmination to a publishing career, and I’m glad I got it directly from his own hand.

When Jack turned 90, seven years ago, his friends put together a spectacular celebration at the San Francisco Center for the Book. We won’t be able to celebrate his 97th birthday, except in his absence, but ideas are being floated for a fitting memorial sometime in the new year.

Several obituaries and moving reminiscences have been published already: by Chris Pullman in Design Observer, by Sam Whiting in the San Francisco Chronicle, and by Pino Trogu in Domus. Dennis Letbetter has been putting together a photographic record that he’s taken of Jack over the years (from which the photos at the left are taken).

Web Typography

Published

At TypeCon last week in Boston, I picked up a copy of the newly published book Web Typography by Richard Rutter. While I have certainly not had time yet to read the whole thing, I’ve been perusing it haphazardly and joyfully. I’m impressed. It’s living up to the recommendations I was hearing in Boston.

It’s fitting that the largest section of this book is the one called “Typographic Detail.” Rutter has obviously absorbed a wealth of typographic knowledge; the resources he cites in his bibliography include not just Bringhurst’s Elements and Cyrus Highsmith’s Paragraphs but Dowding’s Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type, Tschichold’s Asymmetric Typography, and Jost Hochuli’s Detail in Typography. (It also includes, to my appreciative amusement, Erik Spiekermann’s 1987 Rhyme & Reason: a Typographic Novel.

Rutter is adept at explaining and demonstrating the fine points of typographic composition, and doing so in the context of responsive design for the web. His writing is fluid, direct, and informal; even when he’s making a technical point, it’s never less than clear.

Writing about choosing robust typefaces for text onscreen: “Although modern screens have a pixel density capable of rendering intricate glyphs, the nature of emitted rather than reflected light eats into those forms. Robust forms stand up to this bullying, leaving high resolutions to render any subtleties, thereby rewarding you and your reader in tempering the ruggedness of the type.”

I don’t always agree with Rutter’s aesthetic opinions, but they are always well thought out and defensible. He recommends tightening up the letter-spacing of Univers (“Tightening Univers by 1% gives a more contemporary feel”), while I think it crams the letters together and loses the woven texture that was at the heart of Adrian Frutiger’s type designs; but it’s arguable, and in shorter lines than his visual example, it might work. Disagreements like this, however, are rare as I’m reading through the book; on the whole, and in detail, I would trust Richard Rutter’s taste and typographic choices.

This well-made, well-printed 330-page book is also well designed and well thought out. The body text, set in Thomas Gabriel’s Premiéra (which I hadn’t encountered before), is inviting and comfortably readable, although I think it would have been even more so with the line length a pica shorter. The organizational hierarchy is easy to follow, the illustrations are clear and to the point, and the book is full of useful cross-references.

There’s a good bit of back matter, but for a reference book, there’s one thing obviously missing: an index. Rutter provides a “CSS Index,” which is logical given the subject matter, but that’s only helpful if you already know the name of the CSS term you’re looking for. A regular index of subjects or even of terms would be helpful in a printed book (“Where was it that you were talking about letter-spacing Univers?”). But there is one very useful thing tucked into the back pages: a list of “Guidelines,” in sequence by chapter, with page numbers. “This book is written as a series of guidelines,” says Rutter, and this list serves as an excellent guide to the book’s essential information. It really belongs up front, as a sort of expanded table of contents.

My only production quibble is that the physical book is heavier than it needs to be. A somewhat lighter stock would have made it lighter in the hand, feeling less like a tome.

One little surprise that I discovered was a short section at the end, “Communicating your design.” If you’re not doing all the coding yourself, you’ll have to communicate accurately all the details of your typographic design to the person who is going to implement it in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and perhaps more arcane languages and tools. Which brings us back around, full circle, to where I came in: as a phototypesetter in a small Seattle printshop in the early 1980s, offering workshops to our clients on how to spec their type properly so they would get back the typeset results they were hoping for.

You could quite easily use Rutter’s book as an introductory guide to typography, not just to typography on the web. It is aimed squarely at the most flexible and problematic area of publishing today, but its advice is grounded in principles drawn from five centuries of typography in print, and it’s applicable to any form of visual communication that uses words.

[Images: cover and a couple of page spreads from Web Typography.]

More writing

Published

I have just added a couple of complete essays to the rather minimalist “Writing” page on this site, and links to several others.

That page has so far consisted of short, and I hope intriguing, excerpts from various longer pieces of my writing. Now I’ve added links to almost all of the originals, making this a sort of landing page or entry point to these essays.

I’ve added the introduction to Contemporary newspaper design (2004), where I attempted to look at the development of newspaper typography over several technological and economic revolutions, and “The Business of Type”, my account of the origins, development, and demise of U&lc, which was the introduction to U&lc: influencing typography & design (2005). Both of these were books that I edited for Mark Batty Publisher; both of them are now out of print. I think those essays are worth making available again.

I’ve added some more links, too. Check ’em out.

[Update, April 15, 2016:] I’ve now added the missing piece, the preface to Language Culture Type. It is a less substantive piece than the others, but still worth having intact.

t for 2

Published

You don’t get wonderful bound specimen books from type foundries very often these days. Digital foundries tend to produce digital specimens, for all the obvious reasons. But a few days ago The Terminal Design Type Catalog arrived in my (physical) mailbox, and I was delighted.

James Montalbano, the Chief Cook and Bottle-Washer of Terminal Design, has been designing extensive, carefully coordinated type families for twenty-five years. “Ever since my days as a magazine art director,” he writes in his brief Preface, “I have both loved and been disappointed by type. I loved mixing, arranging and discovering different type designs, but was always disappointed by the lack of weights and widths of most designs.” That disappointment will not await anyone browsing this catalog.

This a well-made, well-bound hardcover book, designed by Charles Nix. The embossed red t that takes up the whole cover is striking and dramatic. Each type family is given several pages, with a display of the full character set and large one-line showings. For text faces, there are also pairs of sample text pages with the type shown at different sizes and sometimes different weights.

Terminal Design catalog text spread

The display faces don’t require extensive text settings, but they’re shown off in dramatic form. My favorite page in the whole book must be the final page for the 20-weight typeface Yo.

Terminal Design catalog display spread

The back matter shows sample pairings of display and text faces, comparison of x-heights, the variations in OpenType stylistic sets, and, most notable of all, a visual index of “earmarks,” the distinguishing features of glyphs from different typefaces.

Terminal Design catalog earmarks

James Montalbano’s typefaces are always thoroughly considered, cleanly designed, and well produced. His squarish text face Choice Sans, with multiple widths, gives a lovely, modern texture to both text and display. The sharply serifed Consul takes high-contrast Didot style and freshens it, with six weights and four optical sizes, in both roman and italic. Even the wonderfully weird Fervent, with its pitchfork e and its double-wide w, looks assured and solid on the page.

There are two things that bother me in this catalog. One is the lack of any descriptions of the various typefaces: each one has a careful list of all its features, but there’s no hint of its history and nature, or of how its designer thinks about it.

The other thing is a choice: in the text samples, facing pages of the same typeface at different sizes have the same amount of added leading (3 points). The effect of that is to give the text blocks of smaller type looser line spacing than the text blocks of larger type. That makes it harder to compare them usefully.

Eyemag

Published

I just got the latest issue of Dennis Letbetter’s Eyemag, his more or less quarterly series of magazine-size books that showcase different aspects of his long and notable career as a photographer. (I’m not sure I can say “long career” about someone who’s younger than I am, but what the hell. He’s been doing it for a long time. And it’s certainly notable.)

These are printed privately and distributed to a very limited circulation, but after some prodding Dennis did allow as how he would welcome subscriptions. I believe the rate for four issues is $200, but you should check with him. It might be worth your while. Meanwhile, you can view the contents of individual issues on the website.

Dennis’s photography is remarkable. It’s not showy; it’s just good. The one thing that might be considered an affectation is his occasional use of an extremely wide aspect ratio (6x17cm): but he puts it to good use. The current issue, no. 8, uses these long, narrow apertures to document the city of Florence. The first half of the images is vertical, like some of the narrow streets, while the second half is horizontal, as our eyes tend to see a streetscape.

The previous issue documented a full year of daily portraits of his friend and mentor René Fontaine. “Who would submit to portraiture, let alone a serial portrait which requires an involvement of a year?” asks Dennis in his thoughtful essay at the end of the volume. But René did: he sat for 365 portrait photographs, from from the summer of 1980 to the summer of 1981, no matter how he was feeling, what he was doing, or what the rest of the day might hold. And Dennis was there to record it. Occasionally René would don a whimsical hat (the portrait on the left has always been a favorite of mine, even before I knew its context), but mostly he just sat down in his everyday garb and looked patiently at the camera.

What might be the most unusual issue of Eyemag is no. 4, “The Haight Street Project.” During the same period when Dennis was shooting portraits of designers and artists in the San Francisco Bay Area using a big old-fashioned camera with glass plates, he was also inviting his neighbors in the upper Haight into his garage, which he had converted into a studio, to take their portraits on 4×5 color film in a thoroughly informal situation. These photos let the people who live in or pass through the Haight show themselves however they wish.

Each issue of Eyemag ends with an essay by someone notable and appropriate, and one by Dennis himself. In the current issue, the essay, “Eye Level” (in Italian, with an English translation), is by Andrea Ponsi. In the Haight Street Project issue, the guest essay is by Herbert Gold.

The striking “i” logo of Eyemag was designed for Dennis by the late Michael Harvey, a good friend and an amazing artist in the creation of letters. That i is recognizable as a Michael Harvey letter from a mile away.

(Note: Yes, it can be confusing, but Eyemag is entirely different from the excellent Eye magazine.)

[Images (top to bottom): Covers of issues 1, 6, and 8, and portrait of René Fontaine, 21 March 1981. All images copyright by Dennis Letbetter.]

The Letterform Archive

Published

I recently had my first chance to visit the remarkable Letterform Archive in San Francisco. This is the fruit of thirty-five years of collecting by Rob Saunders, all of it related to type and lettering and printing – especially type specimens and printer’s samples, along with books, manuscripts, and all kinds of printed and hand-made ephemera. In 2013, Rob turned his private obsession into an institution and established the Letterform Archive as a formal entity. More recently, as he announced last month at TypeCon, he acquired the enormous collection of the late Dutch bibliophile Jan Tholenaar, consisting of thousands of type specimens from the last 400 years.

The purpose of the Letterform Archive is to make original research materials available to people for hands-on study: so you can not just look at them but pick them up and hold them in your hands. There are larger collections than his, as Rob freely admits; but too many of them are closed to the public and not easily accessible. With the Letterform Archive, Rob hopes to provide a resource to students, researchers, type historians, graphic designers, and anyone interested in the history of letters. It’s easy to arrange a visit; the space is bright and welcoming, and so are the people.

The other initiative that Rob announced at TypeCon is a new program in conjunction with Cooper Union: Type@Cooper West. This will be a West Coast equivalent of Type@Cooper, the post-graduate program in type design that Cooper Union has been offering for several years at its campus in New York City.

Rob has a few other ambitious plans in mind, too. I’m delighted to see such an energetic undertaking. And I can say from personal experience that it’s a pleasure to sit in the Archive and peruse type in all its many forms.

FontCasting

Published

During last year’s TypeCon in Washington DC, FontShop’s David Sudweeks videotaped interviews with a number of type designers, and with at least one non-type-designer: me. He asked questions about how I’d gotten started in the field of typography (“sideways”) and about book design, which gave me an opportunity to set out my ideas about the typography of onscreen reading, and the nascent Scripta Typographic Institute. (That’s a subject that I’ll be taking up again at ATypI 2015 in São Paulo next month.)

Now that interview has been published. The parts about book design & e-book design start at 1:25, after some introductory material.

All of the FontCast interviews are short, focused, and well edited.