The Next Existential Question: What Font?

By Terry Castle

Caxton and Gutenberg are no doubt levitating in their crypts. With desktop publishing, personal Web pages, and hundreds of free digital fonts available on the Internet, writers of all sorts are discovering the arcane (and addictive) joys of typography. For procrastinating authors, font diddling turns out to be a delicious way to waste time. (Hmm ... what’ll it be today? Palatino? Baskerville Semibold? Dampfplatz Solid with Zapfino caps, perhaps?) Herewith—for those still in the early, not-yet-home-wrecking stages of fontmania: —a few instructive and seductive volumes.

Type & Typography, by Phil Baines and Andrew Haslam (2002). The ideal primer if you don’t yet know your Bembo from your Frutiger. Deliquesce over serifs and sans, x-heights and bowls, and every kind of type from Grotesks to Fat Faces. I myself was a fat face in high school. Never had a date, so was forced to console myself with geeky Claude Garamond and his surprisingly large dingbat.

Creative Type: A Sourcebook of Classic and Contemporary Letter-forms, by Cees W. de Jong, Alston W. Purvis, and Friedrich Friedl (2005). Fab fonts in historic layouts: a veritable éducation sentimentale for the would-be typophile. Like many recent books on typography, this one makes you feel cool and intellectual while you’re paging through it. In reality, you’re back in kindergarten, staring—slack-jawed—at a bunch of pretty A’s, B’s, and C’s. Wipe that runny nose and see if you can spell kerning.

Indie Fonts, Vols. 1 and 2, ed. by Richard Kegler, James Grieshaber, and Tamye Riggs (2002, 2003). The once-fusty, Grolier Club world of type design has been revolutionized by the young, hip, and Mac-savvy. Creating fonts on a computer is now as fashion-forward as playing thrash guitar or sporting tattoo-covered calves. The Indie Fonts books document the digital “foundries” of the information age: punked-out guerrilla operations like Chank, fontBoy, Typodermic, GarageFonts, P22, Atomic Media. Very Burning Man—hairy, raw, and post-post.

Handwritten: Expressive Lettering in the Digital Age, by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilić (2004). The prolific Heller is a design-book god. Here, he and a colleague explore the nostalgic return of hand-lettering (or simulacra of same) in otherwise digitalized modern design. Yes, the scrawled, scratched, and splotchy text styles on display might be said to reinvent the wheel—like those digital “script” fonts one can buy online that mimic some anonymous clod’s messy handwriting. But they fascinate all the same—as if two transsexuals, a male and a female, were to fall in love and try to have a baby.

Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God, by Fiona MacCarthy (1989). Speaking of love, the bohemian and eccentric Eric Gill (1882–1940), charismatic founder of a Catholic Arts and Crafts commune and the greatest British type designer of the twentieth century, got plenty of it. When not carving letters or at his devotions, the randy inventor of Gill Sans and Perpetua entertained himself—sultan-like—by rogering his wife, sisters, daughters, disciples (male and female), and the long-suffering family dog. MacCarthy’s classic biography is a treat. Who would have thought typography—not to mention religion—could be so stimulating?

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