The Ideal Book — The Importance of Legibility

By the Ideal Book, I suppose we are to understand a book not limited by commercial exigencies of price: we can do what we like with it, according to what its nature, as a book, demands of art.

But we may conclude, I think, that its matter will limit us somewhat; a work on differential calculus, a medical work, a dictionary, a collection of a statesman’s speeches, or a treatise on manures, such books, though they might be handsomely and well printed, would scarcely receive ornament with the same exuberance as a volume of lyrical poems, or a standard classic, or such like. A work on Art, I think, bears less of ornament than any other kind of book (“non bis in idem” is a good motto); again, a book that must have illustrations, more or less utilitarian, should, I think, have no actual ornament at all, because the ornament and the illustration must almost certainly fight.

Still whatever the subject matter of the book may be, and however bare it may be of decoration, it can still be a work of art, if the type be good and attention be paid to its general arrangement. All here present, I should suppose, will agree in thinking an opening of Schœffer’s 1462 Bible beautiful, even when it has neither been illuminated nor rubricated; the same may be said of Schussler, or Jenson, or, in short, of any of the good old printers; their books, without any further ornament than they derived from the design and arrangement of the letters, were definite works of art. In fact a book, printed or written, has a tendency to be a beautiful object, and that we of this age should generally produce ugly books, shows, I fear, something like malice prepense—a determination to put our eyes in our pockets wherever we can.

Well, I lay it down, first, that a book quite unornamented can look actually and positively beautiful, and not merely un-ugly, if it be, so to say, architecturally good, which, by the by, need not add much to its price, since it costs no more to pick up pretty stamps than ugly ones, and the taste and forethought that goes to the proper setting, position, and so on, will soon grow into a habit, if cultivated, and will not take up much of the master printer’s time when taken with his other necessary business.

Now, then, let us see what this architectural arrangement claims of us. First, the pages must be clear and easy to read; which they can hardly be unless, Secondly, the type is well designed; and Thirdly, whether the margins be small or big, they must be in due proportion to the page of the letter.

Whether the margins be small or big, they must be in due proportion to the page of the letter.

For clearness of reading the things necessary to be heeded are, first, that the letters should be properly put on their bodies, and, I think, especially that there should be small whites between them; it is curious, but to me certain, that the irregularity of some early type, notably the roman letter of the early printers of Rome, which is, of all roman type, the rudest, does not tend toward illegibility: what does so is the lateral compression of the letter, which necessarily involves the over thinning out of its shape. Of course I do not mean to say that the above-mentioned irregularity is other than a fault to be corrected. One thing should never be done in ideal printing, the spacing out of letters—that is, putting an extra white between them; except in such hurried and unimportant work as newspaper printing, it is inexcusable.

This leads to the second matter on this head, the lateral spacing of words (the whites between them); to make a beautiful page great attention should be paid to this, which, I fear, is not often done. No more white should be used between the words than just clearly cuts them off from one another; if the whites are bigger than this it both tends to illegibility and makes the page ugly. I remember once buying a handsome fifteenth-century Venetian book, and I could not tell at first why some of its pages were so worrying to read, and so commonplace and vulgar to look at, for there was no fault to find with the type. But presently it was accounted for by the spacing: for the said pages were spaced like a modern book, i. e., the black and white nearly equal. Next, if you want a legible book, the white should be clear and the black black. When that excellent journal, the Westminster Gazette, first came out, there was a discussion on the advantages of its green paper, in which a good deal of nonsense was talked. My friend, Mr. Jacobi, being a practical printer, set these wise men right, if they noticed his letter, as I fear they did not, by pointing out that what they had done was to lower the tone (not the moral tone) of the paper, and that, therefore, in order to make it as legible as ordinary black and white, they should make their black blacker—which of course they do not do. You may depend upon it that a gray page is very trying to the eyes.

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