The Secretary of Foreign Tongues

I’m not sure if you have a favorite passage in the English language but I most certainly do, and it’s really the only parlor trick that I know. At a moment’s notice I can recite this bit of text and immediately become an unbearable 17th century Duke:

Thoughts, whither have ye led me, with what sweet

Compulsion thus transported to forget,

What hither brought us hate, not love, nor hope

Of Paradise for Hell, hope here to taste

Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,

Save what is in destroying, other joy

To me is lost.

It’s a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost where Lucifer describes how he gains pleasure only in breaking things and being a big, dumb jerk all the time. But he’s angry and doesn’t really want to be the devil and there’s something wildly interesting to me about that idea. Plus, the words just sound real good. Oh and try reading them aloud because that’s how Milton, once appointed as the Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the British Government (which is by far the coolest government position of all time if you ask me), dictated them due to his blindness. In other words his writing at this point was meant to be heard aloud, preferably as close as you can get to the seventeenth century; with a cozy fire and a sleeping dog.

Anyway, the reason I bring this passage up is because reading it in college for the first time I suddenly found myself aware of bad typography and bad books. Not because I knew anything about graphic design (I didn’t) but since I had become familiar with what beautiful words were really capable of; they could make you feel pity for the devil.

But the books, by jove, the books!

I noticed how the classics that were set to be read during the course had been entombed by sloppy typesetting and terribly poor bookbinding. All that care and attention to detail that was put into the editing, all of that patience and time and heartbreak and anxiety and stress that goes into making words work so well together, only to be ruined by a few clicks of a mouse in Adobe InDesign.

It was, and still is, tragic.

A while back I gave a talk in Nottingham all about this stuff but I’ve never written it down for one reason or another. I have this series of slides from the talk where I went on a massive rant about how Moby Dick isn’t designed to be read and enjoyed, it’s designed to be studied instead:

Sure, these covers might be lovely but open them up and inside you’ll find clunky text with typography that is as generic as can be. The hardcovers will feel, well like all hardcovers, and that is to say quite impossibly awful.

It wasn’t until much later that I found a copy of the book that was, not only made to be read, but designed to be loved. It picked me up and shook me around a little bit as I read. Anyway, I removed this part from the talk, the part where I go on a rant about how there’s never been a good edition of Paradise Lost.

But really the whole point of the talk boiled down to this: that we should care more about the text than anything else because words are capable of so much more if we spend a bit of time with them.