|Page 19||Book Reviews Non-Fiction||November 2008|
The Surface of Meaning -
Books and Book Design
These images only partially show what Bringhurst attempts to tell us about design and typeface. It is really necessary to view the book itself to get the idea.
By Alidė Kohlhaas
Robert Bringhurst's latest book, The Surface of Meaning - Books and Book Design in Canada caught my instant attention when I received it because of the way it is presented. It seems to me that for someone who truly loves books three things are important in a book: written contents, design, and texture. Some may wonder why a person, who loves to read is concerned with the look or feel, i.e. texture, of a book. In my case, in part, the need for a welcoming cover design as well as a sense of touch stems from my emotional connection to antique books. Bound in leather or fine cloth, and the title stamped on the cover and spine with gold letters made them appear especially elegant and desirable. In addition, the paper is made from rags, not from wood nor is it bleached, and so allows for a lovely tactile sense, almost parchment-like, as one turns the pages. More often than not these books contain wonderful illustrations, either in black and white, or as illuminations although the typeface at times is a little haphazard though not without charm.
After the introduction of bleach and wood pulp to paper in the mid-19th century, books were mostly bound in cloth. Design began to be a little bit more elaborate on the cover as well as on the spine, while more care was paid to the choice of the book's typeface.
Then, in the 20th century, more glaringly eye-catching cover design became part of book publishing. Dust jackets now caught the reader's attention, while the actual book still had a plain cover. And so it has remained today if a book is published in hardcover. There are, however, now so many other choices for book binding. Books are now published as paperbacks, as trade covers in which the cardboard cover has a flap just like a dust jacket, and then there are books made by small presses which use various forms of bindings and papers to attract the attention of a prospective reader.
Bringhurst, whose awards are too numerous to list here, is a champion of fine typography and book design. Recognized not only as a poet and linguist, he is also a well-known typographer, whose book, The Elements of Typographic Style, has been translated into 10 languages. His latest book, however, is concerned with book design in Canada from the 19th century to the present. The Surface of Meaning - Books and Book Design in Canada takes a look at both English- and French-Canadian books, their design, and what this design implies about the contents of these books, and the cultural heritage of Canada. What appeals especially, aside from the book's actual design, is that his book introduces us to Native storytelling, something that cannot be found in any other book of this nature.
To be plain, this book is gorgeous, although it concentrates mostly on books published by smaller publishing houses rather than those catering to mass productions. Of course, it is not an easy book to hold because of its coffee table format, but it is a book that surely will find a treasured spot on the bookshelf after it has been read and thoroughly viewed. Its dust cover gives a brief preview of some of the illustrations inside the book, while the actual book has an off-white linen cover with the spine printed in black with white lettering with the exception of two red typographical symbols. This is elegance in the finest sense.
As soon as readers turn the pages of The Surface of Meaning, the texture of the pages and their scent will capture the viewer's attention even before the actual written contents. Printed on semi-gloss, wood- and acid-free paper, it is a book that will not deteriorate over the years. And, what we see so seldom now, this book happens to have been printed in Canada.
For a book of its kind, the text is well written and highly illuminating. Bringhurst knows how to hold a reader's attention without seeming too scholarly, for this is, after all, a scholarly book. In his prologue, the author asks 'What's a book and why?' Here he opens up the subject of 'oral or invisible books', which are the tales told by Aboriginal Canadians. He then describes how Europeans began to create alphabets for Native languages and so made 'invisible books' visible.
Another essay turns to the subject of the history of typography in Canada. It turns out to be a slowly developing art, in part because of our small population. But it eventually caught on and there is now a distinctly Canadian look to typefaces and design, though I venture to add, it is not a mass-media look. And in the final essay Bringhurst touches on the process of digital type, which has made it possible for almost anyone to print a book without the help of a professional.
Bringhurst shows clearly how important design is for the acceptance of a book, at least to those who care about what they read. Of course, there are book covers in existence today that literally scream out, "buy me." To be honest, unless the author happens to be known to me, I never buy such books. And I am happy to say, Bringhurst's choices for his The Surface of Meaning do not fall into this screaming category.
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