In 1936, the publishers of The Dolphin: A Journal of the Making of Books, began work on “A History of the Printed Book.”
They commissioned essays. They sent staff into the cauldron of pre-war Europe to rescue woodblocks, copperplates, etchings, and examples. They were convinced that books would always exist, and felt an obligation to document the original materials and methods, and the talented artisans, who invented and perfected printing.
The result is a richly illustrated and uniquely detailed history, written by scholars.
Originally intended as a series of slender volumes, organized chronologically, LEC brought it out as one large, plain volume in 1938 instead, and re-worked the first three chapters. It is striking to modern eyes: a simple, unadorned object, created before marketing and persuasion controlled everything.
Sold without a slipcover, the bland cloth binding would not qualify for a technical manual today, much less survive in competitive retail environments. We expect glitz and pizzazz, for all things. Once upon a time, though, the power and authority of an object was intrinisc and self-evident.
It looks ordinary. But inside, it’s delicious.
There was only one printing, of 1,800. When I hold my copy, and feel the letterpress inserts—some of which were printed using the original, centuries-old blocks and plates—I am connected, physically, with human history.
Kindle can never do this. And no article on the web reproduces the experience. I must invite you to imagine the feel of laid paper, the texture of fine etched lines, the sensation of feeling the history of print and typography, using an object that was manufactured with the historic techniques.
It’s not that effective design can’t be deployed in electronic books. Computer tools are, in fact, more agile, more responsive to design whim. The technology can work in time, not just space, allowing popups and sliders, navigational drop-downs, drawers and trays, links and transparent layers. If used intelligently, they theoretically enhance and clarify information.
This book, though, offers one navigational scheme: a turned page. One special effect: the impact of each new page. Content trumps all else. This is more than just an historical artifact.
This is more than just an historical artifact. Hundreds of illustrations and examples track the patient human craft of layout, composition, and proportion. Bracketed by early history and later press technology innovations, the majority of the volume uses the actual techniques, per page. Century by century, example by example. It embodies how we evolved the manufactury of books.
We could bring this back. We might retrieve these extraordinary, restrained, graceful organizations of message and meaning. Using insights from Edward Tufte, the father of quantitative information display (as a science), our modern digital tools and effects could deepen our understanding of linear timelines, cross-connected information, and subtle relationships.
But it’s the ubiquitous nature of these effects, randomly applied, and the cheap ease with which they are deployed, that usually undermine the final effect. Back when apprenticeships lasted for years, and ink and quality paper were precious, the construction of a page was a thoughtful, exacting, deliberative process. Today we choose “options.” We make fast work of "pouring content into our sites", and “transfering our library to an iPad.”
A better result shows, in page upon page, in “A History of the Printed Book.” Wide margins. Ample leading (line-height, the distance from baseline to baseline). Instructive inset spaces. Artful callouts that guide the reader. Book designers spent their whole lives making it easy to read and learn.
Kindles and their ilk offer typography changes at a touch, but they are manufactured sensibilities and pre-set, one-dimensional notions of readability and page beauty.
Robert Bringhurst’s magnificent achievement for typesetting, “The Elements of Typographic Style”—itself a masterpiece of design—could conceivably be codified, literally, so that every e-book reader offered elegant, sophisticated communication design.
But there's little demand for it. We are being trained to think about e-books as mere content containers. If we think of design and typography at all, it’s just Arial vs. Times Roman, type size Normal vs. type size. Large. White, Beige, or “Night” paper.
A half-millennium of painstaking excellence, perfecting exemplars of art and visual coherence. All the traditions of training the eye and refining the craft—not lost, just ignored. Subsumed into common-denominator “usability.” Quality streamlined into “convenience,” that’s what the current crop of e-book readers are. And we are a poorer civilization for it.