September 2011

Kelsey Osgood

nonfiction

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

I try very hard to not self-fetishize, I swear, but my one weakness is my own handwriting. It is both impossibly neat and contained but also chaotic and at times illegible. I have charted its growth and development the way a parent does a child's with small pencil marks on a kitchen wall.

So when a pen pal of mine offered to make a font out of my handwriting, I was beside myself with joy -- and curiosity. How had she had come to possess such a skill? Well, now, after reading British nonfiction writer Simon Garfield's Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, I (sort of) know.

Garfield's book isn't a straight chronological account of typeface, from Gutenberg to Gill Sans, but more of a sweeping look at the subject with special attention to the narrative facets that even non-typophiles (people, for example, who wouldn't comment on the web forum at myfonts.com) would find interesting. And believe it or not, there are actually a great number of salacious snippets that come out of the world of font. There's the great IKEA "fontroversy" of 2009, when the Swedish furniture mogul sparked outrage when it changed its signature font from Futura to Verdana, or the account of German physicist (and typophile) Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's ill-fated pilgrimage to meet John Baskerville, whom Lichtenberg considered to be the preeminent type designer of his time, only to find upon his arrival that Baskerville had been dead for eight months. The most lewd and fascinating anecdote from the world of type, however, is the story of Eric Gill, the prolific designer whose typefaces include the aforementioned Gill Sans. In 1989, British biographer Fiona MacCarthy revealed that Gill's diaries contained "stomach-curdling" descriptions of sexual acts performed on his sister, daughters, and dog (which yielded the unsurprising result that "a dog will join with a man") -- this from a man whose views on typeface were quite staunch and traditional. An earlier biography had made no mention of this religious Catholic's bizarre and unethical concupiscent leanings. "The shapes of letters," Gill wrote in his famous "Essay on Typography," "do not derive their beauty from any sensual or sentimental reminiscences." 

Simon Garfield doesn't go out of his way to painstakingly describe the mechanics of the early printing press or the way that fonts are digitally created nowadays. When he does discuss such technical particulars as the switch to the Linotype and Monotype machines in the late nineteenth century, those of us (I'm putting myself in this group) not particular interested in mechanics can get bored within a paragraph. Typography, it seems, has an artistic counterpart in photography: the result, for a layperson, if you will, is lovely to look at and to contemplate, but the reality of its production is rather dull and scientific. Garfield, the author of twelve books of nonfiction on other niche topics such as stamps and mini-cars, tries to play to the widest audience by making the book, which is almost entirely without plot, as light and funny and easy to digest as possible. He does this by keeping the chapters very short, speaking directly to the reader (mostly in an elbow-nudging wasn't-that-funny? kind of way), and using his command of language to describe fonts in ways equal parts sophisticated and laughable, like a snobby sommelier describing the body of a wine.  Fonts, to Garfield, have gender. "Arquitectura looks manly because it is tall, solid, slightly space-age, rooted and implacable. Centaur... looks [female because it appears] like it has been written by hand, has thin and thick strokes, is charming and elegant." They have personality traits: "reservedly proud," "playful," "classy," "adventurous," etc. They have a madeleine-esque ability to transport and remind -- in the case of Helvetica, the Q is reminiscent of "a cigarette in an ashtray" and the lower case a "a pregnant tear-drop belly," while Ecofont (which looks like it has been attacked with a hole puncher in the name of saving ink and conserving resources) recalls "string vest[s] and Swiss cheese." 

The above makes Garfield sound a little irritating, borderline twee, but for the most part he's not. He's at his best when he's being patiently explanatory, such as when he describes the difference between legibility and readability (there actually is one), or when he's letting his snark run wild, as the "The Worst Fonts in the World" chapter. When discussing Papyrus, an Egyptian-esque font, he says snidely, "The font soon became a favorite of Mediterranean-style restaurants, amusing greeting cards, and amateur productions of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.

In the end, this book is entertaining, fun, and educational. It's a romp in a park, complete with links to funny YouTube videos, amusing blogs and listicles reminiscent of those so popular online these days. But for a bibliophile, more of an afternoon snack than a satisfying meal. It didn't spur the development of a font obsession for me, though I did for a period of time pause when skimming the drop down font menu on Microsoft Word (the newer version's automatic is Cambria). I still see the forest, not the trees, and I side with the early twentieth century empress of type Beatrice Warde, who said in a speech to the British Typographer's Guild, "The most important thing is that [type] conveys thought, ideas, images, from one mind to another mind." It strives to be "transparent."

As for the Kelsey font?  It looks slightly like Scrawlz, which you can find on page three hundred.  

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield
Gotham
ISBN 978-1592406524
356 pages