Back in 2001, The Onion published a breathless report from a gala awards ceremony: The Fontys. A few dissenting voices groused about the night’s big winner, Helvetica Bold Oblique – “a bold as best font?” – but ebullience carried the night. “‘A million thanks to all the wonderful folks in the font community who believed in Helvetica Bold Oblique,’” said “an ecstatic Oliver Rudd, designer of the font,”
Without your faith in my vision, I would not be here before you tonight. I’d also like to thank Helvetica Regular designer James T. Helvetica, the giant upon whose shoulders I stand.
Of course this was satire, and its ostensible message served mainly to emphasize a subtext: No one cares about typeface. Some recent reading experiences, however, have me wondering if that’s really true.
This summer, I encountered the ultramodern Vendetta font in two books of debut fiction: Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis and Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. Its polygonal punctuation and strangely shaped gs and ps kept distracting me from the text. I’ve also had problems reading several books from the NYRB Classics series, which has otherwise been justly praised for its attractive design. In each case, an obtrusive font made it hard for me to forget that I was staring at ink on a page. It was hard to distinguish frustration with the typesetting from frustration with the prose itself.
Now I’m about three-quarters of the way through John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, which Overlook Press has heroically brought back into print. Aegypt is a startling hybrid, part fantasy and part novel of ideas, and, when you’re hip-deep in Daemonomania, a blurb comparing Crowley to Thomas Mann doesn’t seem unjustified. For some reason, however, Overlook has chosen a stylized typeface called Rotis that graphically overemphasizes Aegypt’s connection to genre fiction. Overlook told us that Rotis was chosen because it echoes the “feel” of the book; for me, it overdoes the echo. At times I’ve found myself reading racing along to the next plot-point, rather than slowing down to appreciate Crowley’s rich prose, which deserves the same distinction accorded to other modern masters. I wonder if my experience would be different had Crowley been given the Everyman’s Library treatment – or, indeed, if War & Peace would read differently, printed on copier paper in 12-point Courier.
The New Critics taught us that we were supposed to disregard superfluities and focus on the words on the page – but how much does the printing process color our reception of those words? Don’t design choices advance a set of claims for the work – claims that subtly shape our judgment? This seems particularly worth thinking about now that modern technology has made typesetting easier. It would seem to be a fairly simple matter to switch the next print run of Crowley or Gessen or Ulinich to good old Garamond, or to some other font that meets master typographer Matthew Carter‘s criteria: clarity is all. Perhaps there are readers out there who care nothing for the superficial, who would just as soon read an airport paperback as, say, a Vintage International trade. I’ve been a little embarrassed to discover I’m not among them.