Thursday, December 31, 2009

Boooks


Photo courtesy Flickr

That’s the conservative way to pronounce the word.

A book is a low-tech recording medium that is structured to permit easy reference to the contents.

That’s all a book is.

The alphabet is phonetic. Each letter, originally an attenuated picture, conveys sound to the ear of the reader. The alphabet was a sea trader’s accounting technology. Our version comes from Tyre in Phoenicia. Interestingly, English gardeners maintain that giant mullein is a sign that Phoenicians had been in an area.

In the Western tradition, letters were originally written on scrolls, like the torah. Looking for prophecies about Jesus, Christian scribes wearied of twirling Old Testament scrolls, folded the text back and forth on itself, and formed what is known as a codex. The little mulberry paper notebooks found in Japanese stores are codices.

A codex is fragile, as anyone who has handled a Japanese notebook impatiently learns. The next development was to sew the folds of the codex together to keep the pages from tearing themselves apart. That’s a book.

A book is an amazing, simple piece of engineering. Even a sheet of the cheapest 8.5 x 11 paper folded several times onto itself, the folds opened with a dull blade like a table knife, will survive as a pocket notebook for years if the spine is sewn by hand through an odd number of holes. Three holes plus a figure-eight stitch square-knotted at the center will secure the pages through many uses. A tapestry or dulled needle is easiest to work with. Fold a slightly heavier piece of paper stock, paste up the outer pages of the pamphlet, secure and trim the cover, let it dry under a weight, and the piece will last twice as long.

All the rest is detail. Edward Johnston and Sidney Cockerell rediscovered the fundamentals of book engineering in England in the early twentieth century. William Morris, Johnston, and Edward Catich, a Chicago jazz musician of the Twenties, worked out the technology of formal alphabetic writing. St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, maintains Fr. Catich’s archive on its web site.

Imprint on Catich if you want to study letter models. An anatomist, kinesiologist, and trained in Sho-Card as a youth, Catich presented writing that is as close to pose-proof as any I have found. There’s a trade paperback collection of his work.

If you fiddle around with higher tech, the possibilities for a book are infinite. Recordists are the scribes of our time. Audio tape is the exact equivalent of a scroll. In the West, reading used to be taught as one aspect of the art of pronunciation. St. Jerome was notorious in his time for reading silently to himself. If you understand reading to be the art of actively recreating the voice of the author, the drones are silenced.

Someone asked me the other week what I thought the future of the book might be. Don’t have a clue. It’s wide open, and it’s wonderful. The digital possibilities are endless, but we sure need our editors. A small book of archival quality is a gift to the future.

The history of Roman letters is a history of diverging local forms leading to cacaphony, followed by a return to the benchmark images of the Trajan column in Rome, Edward Catich’s patch. Letters are meant to communicate, although the scribe can consciously manipulate reading speed. Our tradition of written forms is the longest unbroken one, so our recorded history is relatively easy to decipher.

Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style is the Joy of Cooking of digital typography. He recommends using a type face that was designed for the medium you’re working in, looks at the relationship of music and book proportions, and sets out the Western book in a nutshell: Gutenberg used one size of one face. Bringhurst recommends basing letter practice on scribal traditions. Catich said all one needs are capital letters.

Chuck Bigelow, Chris Holmes, and Sumner Stone all trained in formal handwriting, and they were pioneers of digital type design. Steve Jobs studied in the same school as they and brought the living tradition of the best of Western letters to the screen. A script is the voice of the designer, a song that can sing any word.

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