In the SOMA district of San Francisco lies a gray and stumpy building that could easily be mistaken for any other. And in the rain it took me a little while to find it. But, after a brief introduction with the tour guide, we began in earnest: printing machines from the Industrial Revolution lined the walls and delicately typeset placards were placed around them in the gallery.
This, of course, is the American Bookbinder’s Museum.
As the name implies, the museum is dedicated to the art of printing and bookmaking in America and it’s an undisputed natural wonder.
Halfway through the tour our bubbly and excitable guide of this wonderful collection, Anna, posed a question to us: “Have you ever heard about the Gutenberg Galaxy?” she asked. [This was the point where I couldn’t take notes fast enough, so I’m bundling a five minute conversation into this small paragraph below…]
The idea goes something like this: Thanks to the printing methods that descended from Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th century inventor of printing, it was discovered that a large set of the population were either short or far-sighted. This spurred the development of glass and, more specifically, lenses. But depending on the size or shape of the lens, scientists were able to zoom into the tiniest pinprick of a smudge to reveal a biological zoo in microbial form or they could focus on those flickers of light in the sky and make the infinite shape of the galaxy known.
“So!” Anna excitedly gasped. “Not only do we owe Gutenberg thanks for this delightful ability to read a book, but also for the ability to read the stars.”
As delightful as that story might’ve been, the smiles begin to fade when I realise that printing has always been a miserable, painful business. For me, a book will always be reminiscent to me of time travel and hiding under the covers on a long winter’s night, but for the majority of the people that manufactured these books it was always a living nightmare of grinding metal and hazardous, dreary hours.
“And that was someone’s job,” Anna sighed as she stood up from what looked like a sewing machine. “Eleven hours a day, six days a week, someone would sit there feeding this machine books to be sewn together.”
As our guide revealed how these glorious machines worked it then became impossible to think about them with any form of romance or nostalgia. The opposite, in fact. These machines looked less like the tools of a scientific and cultural Enlightenment and more like tools designed to destroy the person operating them.
So for every Moby Dick I read and every copy of Infinite Jest that I start and don’t quite entirely finish, it’s clear to me now that I owe only a small debt to Gutenberg for this pleasure. Instead, I owe a far greater debt to the thousands of factory workers that silently built the publishing industry as we know it today.
What I’ve been reading
I Contain Multitudes is not a book about typography, but it is a book that’s so effortlessly brilliant that I want to recommend it to everyone I meet regardless of that fact. Ed Yong’s writing is exquisitely lighthearted and whimsical as he reevaluates the current state of microbiology and its history, persuading us to rethink what we’ve been told about bacteria, viruses and other such forms of microscopic life. The author prompts us to consider a more complex environment instead: the microbiome within us.
This short extract, for instance, is quite brillaint:
I mean, c’mon! Forest Rohwer? That sounds like a character lifted out of a Warren Ellis comic. And that Down a bit. Right a bit part? I love that kind of writing and thankfully this is how the book reads from cover to cover. Consequently my copy is stuffed with an overwhelming amount of notes and scribbles.
Notes from this Week
Craig Mod and Dan Rubin made a website about their lovely book Koya Bound. Along with a neat map and beautiful photographs, they track their hike along an ancient pilgrimage route in Japan. My favourite bit from their adventure is this part:
There’s a rather unknown poet by the name of Thomas A. Clark. His poem In Praise of Walking has a great line about shoes: “Convictions, directions, opinions, are of less importance than sensible shoes.”
In terms of typography, the website employs Fedra Serif Display and Fedra Sans to wonderful effect:
The other day I met with Robin over coffee and amidst all the delightful talk about books and networks and publishing he casually mentioned a phrase that I’ve been thinking about non-stop. We were talking about the excitement and complete terror that precedes the writing process and the experimental early phase where a writer isn’t sure about what it even is that they’re making. There are novellas, novels, essays, tweet storms, blog posts and mysterious Facebook stories to write. So it seems that choosing the right container for the text is just as important as the writing of the text itself.
This is when Robin mentioned what it felt like to work on a “novel-shaped” piece of text. But wait! Let me slow down for a second before we move on so that you can chew on that phrase once again: “Novel-shaped writing.”
Isn’t that a great way to think about the process? Instead of sitting down with the goal to write a book, app, or website, the story ought to influence the shape of the container that wraps it. In fact, several years ago I had this experience when writing a talk and as I was making it I recognised that the tone and imagery that accompanied the text suggested that it shouldn’t be a talk but a “website-essay-shaped-thing” instead.
So I’m not sure how this is useful, and what it means for typography specifically, but I feel that it’s going to be useful to think about for my next project.
Last weekend I hiked up to Coit Tower, a 200 foot structure in the northeastern tip of the San Francisco peninsula. It was a beautiful day for such a hike, the weather was crisp and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
But as I was catching my breath at the top of the hill I noticed a plaque on the entrance that describes the tower’s origins, so I couldn’t help but notice the geometric sans that the plaque had been set in:
Those letters really bug me in a way that’s difficult to explain – I’m not sure what the origin of the typeface is but it’s frustratingly difficult to read and this led me to wonder about an important problem when reviewing a design: is this a problem of the type, the typesetting, or both?
The text is set in all caps which creates legibility problems, but it’s also difficult to read thanks to the low set horizontal bars of the E and H as well as the small counters in the A, R and B letters.
Letter of the Week
Moving onto beautiful shapes, and considering I’ve been gushing about Craig and Dan’s work for Koya Bound, I think it only makes sense to take a closer look at that K of Fedra Serif Display:
The Fedra superfamily is designed by Typotheque and consists of a huge variety of widths to mess around with. I particularly enjoy the condensed versions, especially when set in a European language:
Thanks for reading!