Why I Don't Use a Word Processor (4)

Prior posts in this series:
Having discussed the separation of the tasks of writing a book and formatting the content, and the tools I use for writing, I now turn to the more complicated issue: formatting a book in a professional manner. Essentially, this is the realm of typography, which Wikipedia defines as: the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed. The basic goal can be summarised by a simple principle: typography should never distract from the text; or, to put it slightly differently, unless he is specifically analysing it, the reader should never notice the typography. Wikipedia says essentially the same thing: Traditionally, text is composed to create a readable, coherent, and visually satisfying typeface that works invisibly, without the awareness of the reader. Even distribution of typeset material, with a minimum of distractions and anomalies, is aimed at producing clarity and transparency.

Typography should make the words and the sense of the text easy to discern: every time that the reader is forced to slow the movement of his ocular scan of a page -- or, even worse, if he is force to go back and re-read some text simply because of its layout -- the typography has failed.

(Some typography is simply inherently appalling: I stopped reading commercial e-books when, as I was reading a thriller from St. Martin's Press, I came across the word "you" -- typeset as "y-" on one page and "ou" on the next. It's hard to believe that such an insult to good taste was permitted by a supposedly competent commercial publishing house. How can anyone be expected not to give up in disgust when faced with such gratuitously atrocious typography? But I digress.)

Unsurprisingly, the single most important typographic decision is that of which typeface to use. As described in the colophon of most of my books, I generally use fonts from the Latin Modern family, which I find to be particularly beautiful and easy to read. Many people use fonts based on Times New Roman, but such fonts, designed as they were for the narrow columnar format of a newspaper, tend to lead to some confusion when used to print items such as novels. For example, the letter pair rn, which appears rather frequently in English, may be easily confused with the single letter m unless the reader is paying more attention than is comfortable when reading a fast-paced novel.

Almost all modern books are printed in a serif typeface. Books printed in sans serif typefaces are tiring and frustrating to read, and it is a mystery to me why any competent publishing house would ever print a book in such a way. (My best guess is that on the few occasions that it happens, it is because an enPetered editor with too much power wants to appear modern and gives no thought to the unnecessary difficulties he or she is foisting on the book's readers.) If you doubt the increase in blood pressure induced by reading a book printed in such a way, I suggest that you read Marcus Trescothick's otherwise wonderful autobiography about his life as quite possibly the best [cricket] batsman in the world as he battled with depression, Coming Back to Me. Some editor at HarperCollins decided to allow the book to be typeset in a sans serif font. That person cannot possibly have sat down and tried to read the resulting book.

Here is a sample page from Coming Back to Me (although this is far from doing justice to the experience of reading a page in the physical book):

I find that simply reading a page of this is slow work, probably because the shapes of the letters are so unusual that each word requires an abnormal amount of work for the brain to decode.  After a few pages of this, I also find myself experiencing odd optical effects, such as a waviness in the baselines.

It's not just commercial houses that have indulged in foisting such poorly-considered typography on customers; even such a formerly august publisher as the OUP has done so. The OUP publishers the oddly uneven Very Short Introduction series, and some of those books (strangely, in this series there is no consistent layout from book to book) are typeset with a sans serif typeface. Here is a sample from A Very Short Introduction to Logic:

(The layout of this page violates a number of long-standing typographical conventions, leading me to suspect that the reader is again being subjected to an editor who believes in being modern rather than effective.)

Digressing wildly, the OUP has the distinction of publishing what is, in my opinion, the worst book I have read in recent years: An Introduction to Quantum Computing. Rife with grammatical and factual errors, it is hard to believe that any editor ever did more than simply skim the content without bothering to try to understand it. In my mind the final straw is the figures, of which this page contains two typical examples:

Quantum circuits are drawn throughout the book with the lines that indicate connections displayed in such a light colour that they can barely be seen, even when one knows where they must be. (But , strangely, not all circuits are drawn that way; every now and then one comes across one that is actually legible at a glance.) Can you see the boxes surrounding the gates and the connections between them without peering carefully at Figure 5.3 above? And notice that the text mentions "dashed boxes in Figure 5.5". Here is the page containing that figure:

I'll have to take the authors' word for it that there are dashed boxes in Figure 5.5, as I can't see them. None of this is a trick of the reproduction process for making the pages available here -- in fact, here one can magnify the images and see detail that is effectively invisible to the naked eye on the original page. In the original, the lines are printed too thinly in a very light grey. Given that such quantum circuits are in a real sense the essence of the book, it is bizarre that no care was taken to ensure that they are clear and unambiguous. The conclusion I draw is that no one, simply no one -- none of the three authors, nor any editor -- bothered even to sample the book when it was in the galley stage. Or perhaps no one subscribed to the notion that figures are supposed to demonstrate ideas clearly, rather than leave the reader perplexed because important features are essentially invisible. At least there is some consistency here, since the descriptions of important concepts in the text too frequently include substantive errors, or are presented in language that is so full of grammatical errors as to leave at least this reader puzzled as to the details of what the authors are trying to convey.

I have strayed too far from the intended subject, so will end there. Next time we'll begin to look at the more subtle aspects of good typography, which all too often are ignored nowadays, to the reader's detriment.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.