The Elements of Typographical Style

Reiffel Bird Sanctuary, March 1996

First, let’s get one thing straight: this is a typography manual. And it’s one of the most surprisingly wonderful books I’ve ever read.

Beautiful to look at, of course – it’s a masterpiece both about and of typographical style. Beautifully printed and bound, to boot. But beautifully written too, and quietly revelatory, peppered with illuminating asides on letterforms or the history of printing.

Like this note, that the 26-character, vanilla Roman alphabet of the ASCII character set is “the aphabet not of the real world nor of the UN General Assembly but of NATO: a technological memento of the them-and-us mentality that thrived in the Cold War”.

On text figures (a.k.a. hanging figures, i.e. numbers that descend or ascend from the line like lower case letters; to be contrasted with titling figures, which align with the upper case):

They are basic parts of typographic speech, and they are a sign of civilisation: a sign that dollars are not really twice as important as ideas, and numbers are not afraid to consort on an equal footing with words.

Or the analogy between the mixing of roman/italic faces and the system of linked major/minor keys in music, and the observation that both were inventions of the Baroque period. Huh.

Okay, okay – I picked this up when I was possessed by a sudden obsession with fonts typefaces, and a passing interest in the typographical arts is no doubt essential to enjoying this book.

But it’s just so fantastically written! Every paragraph, no matter how technical, has harmony and flow. Insight and wisdom spring from all kinds of places. In a sidenote on justification through the distortion of glyphs:

But the fact is, all justification involves distortion (…). And distortion, like poverty, is less painful when spread around.

Turning to the bibliography of the author, Robert Bringhurst, it seems he might just be the most interesting man in the world. Not just a typographer, but an author, editor, and poet too – now the poetical tint of his prose makes sense. And the list of his translations includes classical Greek and Latin as well as Navajo and Haida*.

(* While there was controversy around his Haida translations, the accusations seem overstated – with a broadcaster, CBS, claiming Bringhurst hadn’t consulted any Haida speakers, when in fact he’d spent a decade working with the community.)

Anyhoozle. The book is stuffed with lucidly rendered and wholly convincing prose:

One good typeface is better and more useful than fifty thousand poor ones. Here as always, good means several things. It means that the letterforms themselves are clearly envisioned, lucidly rendered and, beyond all that, convincing. It means they make mute, irrefutable sense to both body and mind. It means that the fabric in which these letterforms are held is well made too. If the type is metal, it means that the metal is well cast – hard, sharp, free of bubbles or sags – and evenly dressed…

That quote could’ve gone on. It’s all good stuff. And the book is doing what it should, bringing a subject I know little about into the light of understanding. I’m sure I could study typography for years and still be learning from this book.

Last word to Prof. Bringhurst. On the well-made page:

The well-made page is now what it was then: a window into history, language and the mind: a map of what is being said and a portrait of the voice that is silently speaking.

That being so, The Elements of Typographical Style is one hell of a window / map.