A Grammar of Typography: Classical Book Design in the Digital Age

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We live in a confusing time in the history of the book. Craft knowledge and trade practices that have endured for hundreds of years are now being abandoned with all possible expediency. Both trade and academic publishers seem intent on excluding from their ranks the very craftspeople who are needed to save the printed book as a designed object and renew the public’s acquaintance with book-reading as a visceral experience: typographers.

Though often taught merely as a subdiscipline of graphic design, typography is a craft in its own right — a literary craft historically linked to the disciplines of editing, printing, and publishing. Yet few contemporary design books deal exclusively with typography, and those that do are likely to situate their subject within a sprawling context of new and emerging applications: typography for websites, ebooks, software interfaces, motion graphics, wayfinding, and environmental design. Type has become a transmedia construct — more an idea than a thing — and the book itself would seem to be headed in the same direction. Yet most of the newly developed platforms for the presentation of text are deeply inadequate from the point of view of a typographer, and all could stand to learn much from a technology that has benefited from 570 years of maturation: the printed codex. For this reason, and because there are still those among us who regard the traditional book as both the default and the preeminent means of presenting a text, any work that aims to explicate and guide the creation of books deserves our attention.

A Grammar of Typography (David R. Godine, 2020), written and designed by the accomplished typographer Mark Argetsinger, is such a work. The book, subtitled Classical Book Design in the Digital Age, aims to teach a new generation of designers how to uphold the standards and principles of the printers of old, in this strange new era when the composing stick is a text frame and the ink stone is a menu of swatches. Though Argetsinger’s contextual­ization is vast, his aim is deliberately narrow: A Grammar of Typography is unabashedly a manual for those who wish to produce beautiful, meticulously crafted books in an age that habitually undervalues this endeavor. In stark contrast to the technological proselytizing of much writing on electronic publishing, Argetsinger’s quiet confidence in the simple superiority and timeless relevance of his craft is inspiring. The result is a defiant affirmation of the necessity of bookmaking as a cultural endeavor.

But a book is more than its thesis. A book is, ultimately, its details, and the details of A Grammar of Typography reveal a slightly more complicated picture. As laudable and necessary as this volume is — and it is both of these things — it is let down somewhat both by the details of its execution and by some of its underlying assumptions.

The volume bills itself as “a comprehensive guide to producing historically informed book designs,” suggesting that it is meant to be a practical treatise. Argetsinger’s contextual­ization, however, though refreshingly thorough in its scholarship, threatens to overwhelm his instruction. He spends 135 pages laying the philosophical and historical groundwork for his approach to typography, and only sixty-four on working with type. One would expect much of the value of this book to lie in its bridging of theory and practice, its guidance on wresting classical values from digital tools — yet the book’s unique instructional content is somewhat overshadowed by the reiteration of context that is widely available in other works. Readers apt to seek out a book such as this, if not assigned it for a course, are probably already familiar with the basics of digital typesetting and are looking for an experienced guide to help them acquire more advanced and nuanced technical skills. Argetsinger certainly delivers on this in his valuable chapters on paper selection and binding, but less so in the chapters on typo­graphy itself, which are disproportionately devoted to Typography 101–style assertions and elementary software tutorials.

At 514 pages long, in something akin to the old folio format, A Grammar of Typography is a hefty volume; it is at home on a stout wooden desk or a library lectern, but not easily handled or transported. The interior has a deliberately historicist vibe, successfully channeling the great scholar-printers of the neoclassical and baroque eras. The typesetting itself is mostly impeccable, as one would expect, though there are occasional lapses and oversights. For instance, the numerals in some chapters are not proportionally spaced, resulting in awkward gaps between digits. The running heads and folios are larger than the text, a distinctly late-nineteenth-century American idiosyncrasy that fights with the continental flavor of other aspects of the design. The use of asterisks as section dividers, rather than some more typographically imaginative ornament, seems the sort of “expression from poverty” (i.e., a remnant from the age of the typewriter) of the kind recommended against by Argetsinger. The relatively restrained title page seems to me more successful than the floriated dust jacket. Whereas the jacket indulges in ecstatic ornamentation, which serves to communicate nothing in particular other than a generalized baroque aesthetic, the title page uses scale, space, and color to elegantly delineate meaning and structure, and substitutes a relevant letterform diagram for the jacket’s generically floral centerpiece.

The book, unfortunately, contains a multitude of typographical errors; it averages about one every two pages. Names of people and typefaces seem particularly prone to misspellings. A few substantive errors survived the editorial process as well. A specimen of Garamond Premier[1] is misidentified as Adobe Garamond[2]. A specimen of Zapfino[3], which purports to illustrate “kerning triumphant,” is really a demonstration of ligation triumphant, as the entire word Zapfino, with its enthusiastically swashy initial Z, is in fact a seven-character ligature or logotype that sets as a single glyph.

There are errors of omission as well. The useful but disappointingly brief chapter on digital fonts (fourteen pages) is followed by a showcase of some recommended typefaces, displaying Argetsinger’s preferred digital revivals of historically significant metal text faces. One comes away from this catalogue with the slightly disconcerting impression that the history of typography ended sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, and that the only notable activity in type design since then has been the revival of the classics. This is more than “historically informed” design; it is historically bound design. Many of the best, most beautiful, and most rigorously engineered serifed text faces were designed at the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first[4], and some of these speak an idiom of type design that is substantially different from that of the early-twentieth-century designs. What does Argetsinger gain by ignoring these faces? In what way does it profit his design work to dismiss all digital faces without metal antecedents? Even on its own terms, the selection of faces falls short. Where are the Iberian revivals, such as Mário Feliciano’s Rongel[5] or Cristóbal Henestrosa’s Espinosa Nova[6]? Recent digital revivals of Argetsinger’s preferred faces, such as William Berkson’s Williams Caslon[7], Sergei Egorov’s Neacademia[8], Mark van Bronkhorst’s ATF Garamond[9], and František Štorm’s Jannon[10] series, are also inexplicably absent.

The adjective classical, as used in the subtitle of the book, refers not to antiquity — its usual meaning in the humanities — but to the age of classical music: the neoclassical and baroque periods. It is by no means universally accepted that this era represents the pinnacle of typographic practice; the design historian Alan Bartram views baroque design largely as an unfortunate overcomplication of High Renaissance design, a movement that Argetsinger might more intuitively have chosen as his exemplar of typographic purity. Alterna­tively, Argetsinger might have looked to the first half of the twentieth century, a high point in commercial American book design. The baroque era seems an arbitrary choice, too aesthetically specific to be of much general use as a model of book design. Rather than imitating the form of books designed by Fournier et al., might something be said for identifying the structural logic that underpins their work and extrapolating from it a more timeless and more aesthetically flexible approach to typography? This question leads us, inevitably, to consider Argetsinger’s design philosophy itself.

There is a difference between medium and aesthetic. The continued and laudable use of the traditional materials and processes of book design need not imply an adherence to four-hundred-year-old aesthetic practices. It is possible to use old tools in new ways. Argetsinger, however, seems determined to travel solely in the opposite direction, using new tools in old ways. He makes no mention of the idea that a book design should grow out of, be inspired by, or reflect the nature of the book itself. (Amid his cataloguing of notable typefaces, there is little advice on how a designer should go about choosing between them.) A designer like Richard Eckersley, in contrast, while fully able to execute historically accurate designs, was also able to dissect, parody, and refute the historical conventions in the service of a postmodern text. Like Picasso, Eckersley mastered the basics so quickly that he became bored, and his boredom pushed him to make a name for himself as a creator of typographic Guernicas.

Is it valid for a designer to subscribe whole­heartedly and exclusively to a single aesthetic philosophy? Some practitioners might suggest that a typographer ought not to have any personal style at all, as any such style is bound sometimes to be the wrong one for a given project. Designers should be conversant in the history of their craft, and their working aesthetic knowledge should reach not only back into antiquity but up to the present. Otherwise, they will either fail when handed a project that speaks an aesthetic language different from their own, or be forced to place themselves in a position from which they can decline to take on any proposed project that does not fit their approach. Note that it is not only modern works of literature that may defy Argetsinger’s modus operandi, but ancient works as well. An edition of a text from antiquity, like Robert Bringhurst’s airy translation of Parmenides, would be decidedly uncomfortable dolled up with French fleurons and baroque filigree. Just as there are contemporary texts that challenge and transcend the traditional aesthetic of the book, so too are there texts whose spirit and silence predate all the fussiness of “classical” typo­graphy. What about them?

At least Argetsinger’s approach is sincere and holistic, without the kind of surface-level pastiche that sometimes parades as historically informed book design. Still, his philosophy leaves no room for self-consciousness, irony, or aesthetic experimentation. Argetsinger is a traditional artisan in a postmodern world. As much as we may yearn for the simplicity of a milieu in which visual beauty was a sufficient and uncontroversial goal, the designer of today must recognize that the state of the art is more complicated now. The book designs of Richard Eckersley and the book design manuals of Bringhurst and Rich Hendel all embrace a more pluralistic view of the field, and are therefore perhaps more successful at linking the classical tradition to the fractured philosophy of the postmodern age.

Although A Grammar of Typography is a somewhat frustrating book, it is nevertheless an important one. In a time when books are trending toward digital ethereality and trade publishers are producing stacks of photocopied pages and trying to pass them off as codices, we need a book like A Grammar of Typography. We need a book that believes wholeheartedly in the vitality of the codex as a manifestation of human thought and a product of human craft. Cultural critics are beginning to detect a hint of the coming backlash against digital reading, making this the perfect moment for such a work: a book to pique the interest of young designers in search of materiality and authenticity, as well as contribute to a renaissance in bookmaking, not only as a fine-art specialty but also as a commercial craft.

Argetsinger has much to offer, from his passionate and erudite prose to his laudable and distinctly anti-commercial conviction that the designer should be involved in every aspect of book production. There is inspiration and joy to be found in his devotion to typographic scholar­ship, his dazzling tessellations of printer’s ornaments, and his deep conviction that books really do matter. In establishing a fairly narrow definition of classical design, however, he may exclude those book designers who seek not only to master the craft as it was practiced four hundred years ago in the royal printing houses of Europe but to revitalize the tradition, reintroduce high-quality typography to a new generation of readers, and perhaps even save the codex in the process. A little more practical typographic instruction, a bit more editorial care, and a slight broadening of its underlying philosophy would help to make A Grammar of Typography into the spiritual and practical guide for contemporary typographers that it aspires to be.

Joshua Langman[11] is a typographic designer. He has studied letterpress printing at the Wells College Book Arts Institute, Monotype casting and typesetting at the Press and Letterfoundry of Michael and Winifred Bixler, and printmaking and book arts at Sarah Lawrence College. For three years, he designed and typeset Babel, a polyglot literary journal featuring texts in over twenty languages. With the encouragement of renowned type designer Hermann Zapf, Joshua digitized Orbis Typographicus[12], Zapf’s rare set of letterpress broadsides, and published the series online. Joshua is also a theater artist, writer, and educator. He is the author of Standby: An Approach to Theatrical Design[13] (Southern Illinois University Press, 2022).

References

  1. ^ Garamond Premier (fontsinuse.com)
  2. ^ Adobe Garamond (fontsinuse.com)
  3. ^ Zapfino (fontsinuse.com)
  4. ^ beginning of the twenty-first (typographica.org)
  5. ^ Rongel (typographica.org)
  6. ^ Espinosa Nova (fontsinuse.com)
  7. ^ Williams Caslon (fontsinuse.com)
  8. ^ Neacademia (typographica.org)
  9. ^ ATF Garamond (typographica.org)
  10. ^ Jannon (fontsinuse.com)
  11. ^ Joshua Langman (www.joshualangman.com)
  12. ^ Orbis Typographicus (www.orbistypographicus.com)
  13. ^ Standby: An Approach to Theatrical Design (www.standbybook.com)
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