Tag: books


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After writing my recent post on my enthusiasm for the writing of C. V. Wedgwood, I realized that I didn’t have a copy of her brief biography of Oliver Cromwell, so I ordered one from AbeBooks. It duly arrived, and I have just read it, and can report that it’s fine but by no means one of her best works. But I find myself thinking about the actual physical book, the codex. 

It’s a discarded library book — from Stephens College in Missouri — and was acquired by that library in 1956. It’s a small book (4.5 x 7.5 inches) and has a basic, unadorned cover, and when I first opened the book I thought that the paper wasn’t great. But then I realized that the paper is sixty-three years old, and in that context it’s pretty darn good. It hasn’t yellowed much, and isn’t as brittle as paper that age often is. The binding is sewn, and the book easily lies flat. 

Though the book, as you can see, was published by a New York house, it was actually printed in England. 

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The Jarrold Group sold their printing business around fifteen years ago, after which it seems to have closed, leaving only a small and rarely open museum of printing

But in their day they knew their craft. It’s the typography that really struck me, even though it’s not unusual or obviously distinctive. Here’s a sample page: 

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As I say, not dramatic — but look at how lovely all the proportions are: the layout on the page, the spacing and kerning, the simple but elegant (and highly readable) typeface — Baskerville, I think — you can’t go wrong with Baskerville. It’s very rare for a book to get almost every element of typesetting and layout right the way this one does. (The kerning might be a tiny bit wide at times, but that’s because the book is small and the lines are therefore short. The compositors have done very well to make you forget about that.) 

Consider this recent and nicely-designed book, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

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Now that’s a lovely typeface — Minion, I think? I’m not expert in these things — and note the generous spacing between lines: important when a book is as big as this one (over 600 pages). But the margins are too narrow. Look how the ends of the lines disappear into the gutter. I think with slightly wider margins and slightly narrower spacing between the lines the book could have been more readable at the same length. (Though, as you can see, the paper is too thin. Compare the older book, in which nothing shows through from the other side.) 

Obviously, every typesetting decision creates tradeoffs: you get a good feature in exchange for putting up with something a little less good. It’s like working with a stringed instrument: something is always out of tune, at least a little, thanks to the perversities of equal temperament. But those bookmaking people at Jarrold & Sons did the job about as well as it can be done. Hats off to them. I wish I could buy new books made by them, or by craftsmen who can do what they could do. 

The Plantin Polyglot Bible

Hastings House Book of Hours

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The lovely Hastings House Book of Hours, from this great I Love Typography post, which has other cool images as well. 

and I thought John Wilson had many books

I think all the time about alternative ways of organizing my books, but am always thwarted by the fact that some are at home and some at the office. Probably what I’m most looking forward to about retirement is having all my books in one place. (But that may be what my wife is least looking forward to.) I think at least half of the Kindle books I own I bought because that was easier than getting into the car and driving to the office where I already had a codex copy. I cherish the fantasy that when I finally have all my books in the same building, and discover the ideal way to organize them, then all the chaos of my mind will resolves itself in a single great orderly pattern, and all the connections I have failed to make over the years will suddenly snap into place, and everything I have so persistently proved incapable of understanding will reveal itself in a moment of perfect clarity and unity. And then I will sit cross-legged in the midst of my books smiling like a Buddha. Enlightenment at last.

“I have Calculated and the time is nigh”

— Brenna Bychowski, via John Overholt on Twitter

Douglas Coupland: ‘I’m actually at my happiest when I’m writing on a plane’

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Selling Books

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An interesting trio of books for Random House to be advertising in the April 24, 1944 issue of The New Republic — in the margin, by the way, of an extremely negative review of two C. S. Lewis books, written by Alistair Cooke, later of Masterpiece Theater fame. Also, I plan to find a use for the phrase “Tolstoyan it flows with laughter, tears and scotch.”

A new journalistic recipe is afoot: find once ubiquitous technology that is on the wane and write about its quirky history. The latest exhibit at the LA Review of Books: the phone booth.

Ah, the phone booth, haven of bacterial infestation, coin-operated dysfunctionality, and cinematic obsession. We’ll miss you.

Of course the more interesting question is not to treat media like cats (so cute, so sad), but to ask why it is that we need to rehearse these disappearances. Why are we so drawn to the mourning work of missing media?

Andrew Piper, who has written elsewhere about the comfort people take in “eulogizing media technology, like a warm blanket for the overconnected.”

We have gone long enough without raising the question of whether reading makes you a better person. The short answer to that question is No. It doesn’t. And the long answer doesn’t differ too dramatically from the short one….

Responding to the claim that not just reading but “high culture” in general is morally improving, Terry Eagleton points out that, during World War II, “many people were indeed deep in high culture, but … this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe.” If reading really was supposed to “make you a better person,” then “when the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps … to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.”

There’s simply nothing about reading, or listening to Mozart sonatas, or viewing paintings by Raphael, that necessarily transforms or even improves someone’s character. As the eighteenth-century scientist G. C. Lichtenberg once wrote, “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” Nevertheless, I am going to argue, from time to time throughout the course of this book, that if you really want to become a better person, there are ways in which reading can help. But the degree to which that happens will depend not just on what you read … but also why and how. So consider yourself either warned or promised, according to your feelings about moralistic exhortation.

If you read advertisements for books in eighteenth-century journals, you will be struck by the emphasis on the primary material of literature: ‘Printed on the best-quality paper from Angouleme.’ That line of salesmanship would be unthinkable today, when readers rarely notice the quality of the paper in books. In the eighteenth century they often found splotches made by drops from a poorly held deckle or bits of petticoat that had not been properly pulped. Remarks about paper turn up so often in the letters of booksellers—and even a few readers, though the STN [Société typographique de Neuchatel] rarely heard from individual consumers—that I think a peculiar paper consciousness existed in early modern Europe. It must have died out with the advent of machine- made paper from pulped wood in the nineteenth century. But in earlier times people looked at the material substratum of books, not merely at their verbal message. Readers discussed the degrees of whiteness, the texture, and the elasticity of paper. They employed a rich esthetic vocabulary to describe its qualities, much as they do for wine today.

I just wish that we could talk about books as if they are for use, not as symbols of enduring knowledge that must be preserved against the ravages of digital barbarians or as emblems of obdurate and blinkered resistance to inevitable change.