The Dog Ear: Of fonts and nonfiction
Published: Monday, October 8, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 8, 2012 22:10
When I read, I always notice the different fonts used in books, newspapers and magazines and enjoy when different fonts other then the norm are used. Although I noticed the fonts, I never realized the amount of thought and time it takes to create one. “Just My Type” by Simon Garfield changed that. It is an entire book, 341 pages, about fonts. While this seems like an extremely dull topic, the book took me by surprise, especially since I’m not a fan of nonfiction books. I rarely read them. Adventures and magical places are my preferred topics, not cold, hard facts. However, this was an exception.
“Just My Type” taught me that there is a lot more to a font than meets the eye. In my opinion, the average person who starts to write using Microsoft Word hardly ever thinks of the components a font consists of. The spacing between the letters, the size of the letters and their weight are a few of many aspects type designers must think about. I was taken aback by the complexity font design involves. One quote summed up my thoughts precisely. Matthew Carter, famous for designing fonts such as Veranda and Georgia, says that people “don’t realize any human agency is involved, because fonts for them are part of the software ether that appears mysteriously on their computer. They are very astonished when they hear people do this.”
Since people don’t often think about fonts, I loved Garfield’s unique style of bringing fonts to life beyond their textual context. His description of Cooper Black as “the sort of font the oils in a lava lamp would form if smashed to the floor” is just one example of how he skillfully describes different fonts. To him, fonts have a distinct life of their own besides being simply one of many options someone can pick from a dropdown menu.
The life of fonts is emphasized in the “Fontbreak” section after each chapter. Garfield describes the birth of new fonts, the life of their creators or just interesting facts about a particular font. Basically, “Just My Type” is one big factbook about something in our everyday lives that normally doesn’t merit our attention. When you set out to write a paper, you hardly ever change the font to something other than Times New Roman. It’s the standard font for schoolwork. I wouldn’t dare turn in an assignment in Chiller or Papyrus. It’s just not done, a social faux pas. After exploring this book, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think about fonts the same way again.
“Just My Type” also changed my way of thinking about nonfiction books. First though, I must be honest and say I didn’t read this book cover to cover. I read the first half and then skipped around the second half to read things that were of particular interest to me. This wasn’t because the book wasn’t well-written but because I found it to be a book better read sporadically than all at once. There was only so much information about fonts I could handle at one time. When I realized what I was doing, I also realized what I should have been doing with nonfiction books all along.
While I would never skip around in a novel, I learned that nonfiction books need to be approached differently than fiction. Nonfiction books can wear you down in their depth, making your eyes glaze over as you read. In order to really appreciate them and open yourself up to a new genre, read the topics you feel like reading. Unlike a novel, if some things get skipped, there is no plotline that will be ruined. Also, don’t force yourself to read. Read however much you want whenever you want. Reading factual information for hours just to say you’re reading isn’t conducive to learning and exhausting yourself. It also is the wrong way to approach books. Books contain so much factual and practical information that extends beyond the text that is waiting to be discovered. It’s up to you to find the books and commit to the read that will take you there.