Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Just My Type" by Simon Garfield

I suppose you have to be a true nerd to be excited about a book like Just My Type, a compendium of essays on all things related to fonts. But, really, it's a fascinating subject, and it's to Garfield's credit that the book keeps a light tone and is chock full of party facts (e.g. "Upper or lower case? The term comes from the position of the loose metal compositor's hands before they were used to form a word--the commonly used ones on an accessible lower level, the capitals above them, waiting their turn" (23).) 

Just My Type takes the reader through the creation of type, starting with Gutenberg's printing press and continuing through modern digital type. He also discusses the history of many of the most well-known and ubiquitous fonts, as well as the philosophy and controversies behind typography itself (Should fonts be beautiful and recognizable? Or are the best fonts unnoticeable?). There's not a straightforward or linear structure to the book; each chapter addresses a specific topic, which makes it easy to read and digest.

There were many surprises for me. For example, the word "font" didn't enter ordinary language until the first Macintosh computer, which allowed users to easily change fonts for the first time. The creation of fonts would have seemed, to me, a relatively easy endeavor, but it was striking how much time and work went (and goes) into developing new fonts--it's an art form and a science.

Perhaps what I liked best about reading the book was how it brought out my own font feelings and prejudices. I'm a Times New Roman devotee, most likely because it was the default font on Microsoft Word in the mid-'90s, a time when I would have been first regularly crafting papers for school. Though, like all young people, I experimented with all the available fonts, writing some terrible play in which each new paragraph was a new font, I was largely conservative. To me, Times New Roman was the only real font, and I somehow just assumed everyone else felt the same. In fact, I probably would have (wrongly) said that all books and newspapers were printed in it--it's just so academic, so stately. It says, "I am intelligent and have something worthwhile to say" (even its appearance on a list of "worst fonts" in Just My Type does not deter me). Every document I write, whether it's a business letter, an application, or a handout for my students, is written in Times New Roman. 

I've always hated Arial, a font my classmates began using at a time when I was rigidly Times New Roman. To me, Arial, with its more rounded lettering and wider spacing, says:
I'm not very smart, and clearly I'm trying to cover up that my essay isn't long enough by using this font.
I felt somewhat vindicated to see many other people hate Arial, though their disdain comes from it being derivative of Helvetica.
But the font that really drives me bonkers is Calibri, the new default font for Windows 2007. The school at which I teach recently updated to Windows '07, and now all the computers are set for Calibri. It's even more rounded and soft than Arial, but it's somehow smaller than Times New Roman, so it's impossible to see when I'm trying to read my students' essays on their computers. Blech.
How would I ever consider giving an essay an A if it was written in Calibri?
 Just My Type is one of those books that has to be enjoyed as a book--not an ebook or audiobook--as the viewing of different fonts and accompanying photos is essential to its understanding. It's enjoyable and eye-opening, as it shows just how much an impact fonts have on our everyday life. 

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