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Why books look old-fashioned… and why that’s a good thing

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By Ruben De Baerdemaeker

Fonts of wisdom

If you enjoy reading – and let’s assume you do; otherwise, what you are doing now makes no sense at all – you have an interest in fonts. Not an active interest, perhaps, but fonts matter to you: you will “like” some typefaces more than others, and, given the choice between two versions of the same text, set in a different type, you will probably find it relatively easy to decide which you find more appealing. You will not even find it difficult to ascribe certain characteristics to a type you encounter – some are “serious” and “classical”, others are “modern”, “inviting” or even (an attribution with dubious implications) “funny”.

Furthermore, if you would ask a group of people to compare two fonts, a serif and and a sans serif font – let’s say Baskerville and Gill Sans – and you would ask them to decide which of the two is more “modern”, it is very likely that you will get the correct answer: sans serif fonts are – and look, and “feel” – much more modern than serif fonts: they simply do away with the unnecessary, ornamental part of a letter (which is pretty much what a serif is, after all), so that they look more like Picasso than Rubens, more Bauhaus than Sistine Chapel, more Hemingway than Shakespeare. And yet, when it comes to books – we simply do not use them.

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Old fonts

Open up any recently published book, and you may well encounter an old style or “Garalde” font[1] such as Caslon (c. 1725), Garamond (1540s), or even, harking back to the age of incunabula (books printed before 1501), Bembo, based on a font cut as early as 1495, or Jenson, going back – staggeringly – as far as 1470. Alternatively, you may find yourself facing a slightly younger “transitional” font like Baskerville (named after the man who elaborated and updated Caslon’s letters in 1757). Both these groups of fonts seem to sit comfortably between the “humanist” types that were modelled on formal renaissance handwriting (e.g. Centaur), and the “Didone” or “modern” types (such as Bodoni or Didot – the two names that blend to give this group of typefaces its odd-looking moniker).

The evolution of classical fonts (humanist – old style – transitional –Didone) is marked by (among other things) a move towards greater contrast between thin and thick strokes. So whereas “humanist” types typically (no pun intended) have little variation in line width and are hence relatively “dark” (referring to the overall impression of the page – it has nothing to do with the colour of the letter), Didone typefaces move abruptly from thick to thin strokes.

So this must be part of the explanation we are looking for: real “humanist” types are a bit too dark, squat and archaic to our tastes, and the Didones, while very elegant and dainty, give you a headache because mainly the vertical lines stand out, which can make text look a bit like a lengthy barcode.

[1] I’m using the elegantly named “Vox-ATypl classification” of fonts, here – the names of different styles sometimes vary, as does the classification of individual fonts.

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New fonts

Of course, no books are published today that use the exact same fonts as 400 years ago – that would mean going back to typesetting books by hand, using the worn metal letters that were once handled by William Caslon or John Baskerville themselves. Needless to say, font used today is digital – and digital versions of classic fonts (often called “revivals”) are always interpretations of what is actually found on the yellowing printed pages of centuries ago.

And yet, even popular book fonts that have come into existence only recently seem to try very hard to mimic the classical fonts discussed earlier. Here are a few particularly popular ones: Sabon (which, if you are someone who reads a book from time to time, you will have seen – trust me) was designed in the 60s, and based on Garamond and Granjon (for the italics), which sends us back to the 16th century. Minion, which was developed in 1990, is a resolutely “old style” serif font – and another one you are likely to have seen in books or on screen (there is a web version of this one).  Another relatively young typeface, FF Scala (also from 1990) is interesting in that it has both a serif and a sans serif version – and yet it, too, is based on much older models and is listed by Wikipedia as a humanist type (even though some of its characteristics seem to make it more “old style”). Furthermore, it is a type developed for the digital age, and works particularly well on screen.

There are many, many other ones, of course, but be they Pilgrim, Elektra, Cochin, Joanna, Spectrum, Cala, or anything you will find in the novel nearest to you, I am willing to bet it will invariably be a serif font – and very probably one with a pedigree stretching back to the 18th century and beyond.

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Shoot the serif

There are a few seemingly good reasons for using sans serif fonts in books, that I can think of. The first one being dyslexics: research has shown that dyslexics find serif fonts harder to read than sans serifs. There are even fonts designed specifically for dyslexics (Lexia, Opendyslexic) – but these do not appear to work for everyone. Research on the readability of serifs and sans serifs for non-dyslexics, by the way, seems to be inconclusive. This may mean that, to most readers, it just doesn’t make all that big a difference.

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(Lexia)

Secondly, when I say that books are not usually printed in sans serifs, I have to ignore a huge swath of the book market: children’s books. Not Harry Potter and the lengthier likes, but books for toddlers and primary school children; sans serif all the way. So, not only do children have to learn to read and write (which involves very different types of letters) – once they’ve done that, we expect them to make a smooth transition to reading serif fonts. Serious reading comes with serious fonts, society seems to say. The door that leads to adulthood is hinged with serifs.

Don’t shoot the serif

Calibri, the current standard font in Microsoft Office (and therefore, let’s face it, the standard font in the world) is a clean, inviting, readable and recent font. Everybody uses it. (In fact, that may be the only thing that speaks against it – we will inevitably weary of its use. To some, perhaps, it has already lost some of its appeal, and it wasn’t even around until 2007.) It is everywhere: memos, letters, documents, powerpoints, etc. But I do not know of a single book that is set in Calibri. In fact, I think it would be unappealing for one simple reason only: we would find it profoundly ugly.

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(Calibri)

And there it is: the only reason I can think of for us to keep on printing and reading books set in serif types. We like what we know, and only if we like it, can we find it beautiful. Sans serif fonts, modern and stylish as they can be – and put to use as they are for book covers and chapter headings – simply rub our aesthetic sensibilities the wrong way. When we sit down with a book, we seem to want to be transported into a world where we don’t encounter the fonts we see at the office or the supermarket. We want our books to pretend they were printed a long time ago. In a way, we are like Victorians who want their churches to look more medieval than they had ever done – so we create our own artificial version of a past that never was. It is fake, but we like it.

In his essay A Life with Books, Julian Barnes writes:

Books will have to earn their keep – and so will bookshops. Books will have to become more desirable: not luxury goods, but well-designed, attractive, making us want to pick them up, buy them, give them as presents, keep them, think about rereading them, and remember in later years that this was the edition in which we first encountered what lay inside.

If books are to survive and not be swept away by the digital tide, they will have to be beautiful objects – and they will need beautiful fonts. The fonts we use in books have long histories, and it seems we prefer our books set in fonts that go back to the very earliest days of printing, rather than in efficient, modern and clean type. It may be too romantic to think that the use of classical fonts ties us to that era when the printing press democratised knowledge and spread ideas. But we do not want our books to look and feel like office documents, like electricity bills – like the plentiful banal manifestations of the written word. We want our books beautiful and old-fashioned – and we want them now.

 

Ruben De Baerdemaeker is a geek who loves fonts. He is from Belgium, but we still like him. Oh, he has a Ph.D. in Literature… as if that’s a thing.