Baskerville versus the Kindle, Round 1: Seeing

I have been very kindly (Kindley?) given a Kindle for Christmas. Yes, I haven’t previously given the e-book phenomenon a good writeup. So this is a very good chance to get off some of my high horses and simply try to find out the truth, and then write about it. Consistency is good but truth-to-experience is more interesting and human. This is the device/reader:

In the blue corner, my Kindle in its leather/suede case, with 'pencils' screensaver …

John Baskerville (c. 1770) by James Millar. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

By comparison I thought I would take a very detailed look at another extraordinarily thoughtful present, a superb example of ‘the book’ printed and published by John Baskerville (1706–75). Baskerville was a Birmingham-based printer, typefounder and atheist who, while Printer to the University of Cambridge, was responsible for one of the most handsome bibles ever. This book, however, is the Book of Common Prayer. It contains the Church of England’s liturgy and readings for morning, evening and holy day services throughout the year. The 1662 revision updated the 1549 original but the words have barely changed since; they have accompanied hundreds of millions of English men and women at their christenings, marriages and funerals. Some of these words are now so embedded in national and global consciousness it is difficult to imagine the time they ever came to be newly written. These words are still, in some churches, in daily use. The Baskerville edition is from 1760 and is a tour de force of typography that is both sensuous and rational.

In the red corner, John Baskerville's Book of Common Prayer, in a full leather binding. Not 'mine', as it will outlive me by some hundreds of years …

Contentious comparisons are the lifeblood of populist journalism – I have probably been watching too many of my elder son’s beloved Top Gears. These two posts are therefore a multimodal ‘read-off’ (cf. ‘dance-off’, ‘cook-off’ and now also ‘bake-0ff’) between the book and the e-book device. The Kindle roadtested includes a leather/suede case. This first one deals entirely with visuality, our major but not necessarily most compelling mode of media apperception.

Round 1: Seeing. Some people have the Baskerville typeface on their computer; it is usually categorized as ‘Transitional’. The transition in question was from the Roman stone-cut letterforms, revived as printing types during the Renaissance and later to be known as ‘Old Style’, en route to the letterforms simply designed to look ‘good’ and to respond both to the nature of the subject matter (telephone directories to newspapers to traffic signs …) and the technical constraints of their intended medium (letterpress to television to computer screen …) – typefaces known as ‘Modern’. Baskerville’s Transitional typeface is close in spirit to the French Encyclopédistes and the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution in being avowedly rational and neoclassically purist; compared to Old Style faces it is more idiomatically print-based, with less conservative referencing to the shapes derived from the stone-cutter’s chisel and hammer, or the angled thicks/thins of the strokes of the sharpened end of a bird’s feather. It never properly survived the 1970s’ shift to photolithographic printing, where the sharp-pointed serifs weakly shaded away to nothing. In its letterpress version here, however, the ink also loads onto the outside of the letterform, which the press then assertively prints onto the paper to give a crisp outline that is both refined and robust. The micro-imperfections of the machine techniques (from punch-cutting to printing to papermaking) are pulsating with visual interest. Here is the title page:

Note that capitals are always letterspaced, giving the visual/typographical correlative to a 1760s' urbane and civilized sociality. The long s ('Ufe' for 'Use') takes getting used to, but otherwise this looks a lot less than 262 years old. 'Six Shillings and Six Pence' is 32.5 p, a third of a pound sterling, around half a dollar (approximately £60/$90 today). Typical 1760 wages were £40/$60 a year to provide for a whole family (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Coinage.jsp).

A sample of a typically typographically elegant page. Also a curio: an annual service to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Notice too the chiascuro of the curvature of this verso page on the right as it drops down into the back. Contrast with the Kindle (below).

Meanwhile, the Kindle typeface is PMN Caecilia, designed by Peter Matthias Noordzij for Linotype back in 1990. Described as a ‘neo-humanist slab serif’, it combines a lively cursive-derived (‘true’) italic with a rational and sturdy roman. It has a large x-height and simplicity of outline that survives low-resolution Kindle and computer screens, office laserprinters and (ahem!) fax machines – thus showing the age of the design. Intelligent and functional though this typeface is, if every book I read is going to be in this face, I for one will die of visual boredom. My cat finds daily dry pellets delicious, but eating the same thing every day is not for humans; neither is the same typeface for every book. To my eye this is a ponderous semi-bold too, and grey, giving a strong association for me of elephants:

Mark Forsyth's lively 'The Etymologicon' gets the PMN Caecilia treatment. Note the relentless dead grey flatness of the background, page after page after page …

The ‘page’ (I am using what publishers call sneer quotes) you can see above is typically dire. In the traditions of book setting and hand lettering going back more than two thousand years, long words are often split to make word spacing even and the justified right margin tidy – this is so-called ‘soft’ or discretionary hyphenation. The designers of the Kindle are oblivious (why?) to these noble traditions, so its over-rigorous software command ‘Don’t hyphenate’ stops it even having a ‘hard’ hyphen (at ‘well-born’ in the second paragraph), even if (a) it makes perfectly good sense and (b) it looks much nicer. The designers of the machine nonetheless think the inter-word spacing on that line is getting too gappy, so they think the solution is to give up on consistency and leave the line short. Of course the whole page would look much more elegant if they simply left the right-hand edge of the type block ‘ragged right’ – like (I hope) the type on this webpage.

Some people say it doesn’t matter, there are more important things to think about – this is not a convincing argument, because you can say that about anything except water for those dying of thirst. I happen to think that letting machines tell us what we can or can’t have is wrong; readers’ simple pleasure in elegance is worth some effort.

Of course the Kindle, like all transitional media – exactly like a well-known invention by Gutenberg, by the way – has started off by trying to imitate its predecessors. Note the arty/grainy pencil screensaver image above; there’s also wood type, pens (fountain, of course), typewriter, children’s wooden alphabet blocks … You get the idea: the Kindle is skeuomorphic, a simulacrum that gives out it is something it isn’t. In a confusing world of rapid change it is natural we look to reference points that remain the same. Entirely reasonably, the Kindle currently lacks the confidence to make its own rules and evolve to its own conception of elegance. Look at Baskerville – it took 300 years from the beginning of the printed book to start cutting letterforms that were only then transitionally different from shapes created by chisels or quills.

In the world of Kindle and its competitors expect a ferocious tsunami of technical innovation, rapid obsolescence, file format wars, extension/integration of media and access choices, and aggressive pricing. All of these are intended to crush opposition and drive the plurality of routes between market and consumer along proprietary/nailed-down pathways.

I have no beef about the way business is conducted, but might this be bad and unsustainable business? When we are reading, don’t we just want to relax and enjoy? Might not a publishers’ active marketing campaign , emphasizing the sensory richness and simple pleasures of the codex (‘the book’), find an eager and receptive readership? A book is not a skeuomorph of a Kindle. It isn’t afraid of the future or of change. It just happens to be one of the most astonishing media devices ever invented.

Points awarded by the judges (well, me actually): John Baskerville 9 out of 10, Kindle 2 out of 10.

Coda: the Book of Common Prayer was officially superseded by Common Worship in 2000. In the marriage service I notice that the Baskervillian ‘and thereto I plight thee my troth’ has been replaced by the Kindleian ‘In the presence of God I make this vow.’ The earlier is richer, more intimate – you promise to your spouse, you don’t simply make a vow in the presence of the deity. We don’t understand the words, the same way at this point in a marriage we probably don’t understand our spouse, or ourselves – if we ever do. Who says that everything in life is understandable? Yes, I know the words are almost funny because they are difficult to understand, but don’t they also sit at the edges of our consciousness, for us to think about over and over, for ever and ever?

[Rounds 2 to 7 – Hearing, Touch, Smell, Taste, Sustainability and Useability – follow in the next post.]


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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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