Friday, August 17, 2007

I Heart Bembo*

(A big storm last night knocked out our internet when I was halfway through posting. One of the many perils of country living, along with my new least favorite: chicken-pecked eye.)

This post at Midnight Ambulette reminded me how important typeface decisions can be. Some of us identify powerfully with our favored font, and a perfectly good book can seem to be ruined by the wrong typeface. I was horrified when the first galleys of my book came back in a bizarre, poofy, sans-serif type. (Or maybe it wasn't sans-serif -- that seems a bit over the top. In my memory the typeface was pink. That can't be true, but it must have been a very pinky one.) I begged for a different one, and ultimately it was set in Minion, an Adobe font designed in 1990. Which is okay. It has a slightly plaintive, antique-but-trim look I like.

My favorite typeface of all time is Bembo, which is what The World As I Found It was set in. It's small, dense, humorous, and typey -- it makes me think of the little bits of lead type pressing into the page. Another favorite is Cochin, which I used for my short-lived litmag TEACUP, and last saw in George Saunders's CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. It has small e's and a's and tall h's and l's, which makes it kind of charming. Another notable font you don't see much anymore is Bodoni, which was awfully thick-and-thin but rather handsome. DeLillo's White Noise was in it, at least the edition I had.

Do typefaces really alter the tone of the writing, as they seem to? A great book is still a great book in Helvetica, isn't it? Maybe not. A font is not bad just because it's ugly, but because it draws attention to itself and away from the writing. A beautiful but inappropriate font is no good, either. There seems to be, in recent years, a move away from fancy or unusual typefaces in general book publication, and more sticking with the old standards. This is probably a good thing for the eyes, but no fun for the font-geeks.

When I was in graduate school, each writer in my workshops had his or her own distinctive font -- you never needed a name on anyone's story, because you could tell at a glance whose it was. The typeface became an integral part of each person's voice. Later, when some of those writers published books, it was as if part of their voice was erased, or moderated to fit into the larger world.

What I want to know is, why do some books have a Note on the Type, and others don't? Every book should have one, don't you think?

*In this post I use the terms "font" and "typeface" interchangeably, though they're not exactly the same thing.

7 comments:

The Individual Voice said...

I, too, am obsessed with fonts and have gone back and forth on my favorites. I used to love Papyrus, but I realized it distracted too much from the writing, so now I go for simpler fonts which are boring, but they become invisible as the message gets through.

jrlennon said...

Papyrus, whoa! That's a heck of a stylized font for writing with.

I am a Garamond man all the way. It's funny, when Rhian mentioned that each of our grad school chums had a signature font, I was suddenly able to picture all of them--I bet I could still identify those manuscript pages.

moonlight ambulette said...

oh my gosh, seeing my blog's name in your blog just made me gasp with glee.

anyway.

bembo is pretty -- and i love the name of it! and now that you can mention it, i can totally picture the fonts (or typefaces, whatever!) of my grad-school classmates.

a thought: a blog that publishes short stories in the fonts in which they were originally written. brilliant? pointless? hmm.

Anonymous said...

The worst and most commonly found font ever: comic sans.

I hate it. I can't take it seriously at all and I see it everywhere...

5 Red Pandas said...

In all of my schooling I was always instructed to use Times New Roman. It was a directive I didn't dare question. Not after a teacher gave me a lower grade because I used one more staple than he had stipulated.

If I am putting together a zine, then I pay attention to fonts, but as for word processing I just use Times New Roman or courier (but courier is a fat font and makes you think you've written more than you have).

I too hate comic sans. I also hate the font that is supposed to look like chalk. I hate chalk too- but that's because I hated writing on the blackboard as a teacher. I began to lose my respect for certain co-workers who insisted on printing up worksheets in comic sans or the chalk font. We taught high school, and much of our dignity was taken from us, so why would anyone further erode their own dignity by using comic sans?

Whew, before this post I didn't realize how strongly I felt about certain fonts!

zoe said...

Why is it that high school so frequently uses comic sans? It isn't just an American phenomena either, I've come across it in New Zealand and the UK. One school I worked at made everybody use it as the house style. Hideous. It is so infantile and lacking in gravitas. It makes everything seem like a joke.

Garamond, on the other hand...

zoe said...

Sorry, should that be phenomenon? It's late here.