Book Design: The Bibliophile Learns About Typography

29 Jun

I am a voracious reader, a bibliophile. If posed the question of what I’d try to save in a fire — or recently in Texas, a flood — I would have to say I’d probably try to escape with as many books as possible.

But, for some time, the reader and book lover in me had not thought much about the actual book as an object itself, especially because many of the first books I ever owned were cheap paperbacks with little thought put into their design other than usually gaudy cover illustrations. Then about 1989, I subscribed (for a few months, until it became too expensive to do so) to The Easton Press’s First Edition Library that publishes facsimile first editions of classic American novels.

I was immersed in reading Hemingway at the time and the first offering was For Whom the Bell Tolls. Then came F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was a gorgeous book, especially the facsimile copy of the dust jacket, reproducing Francis Cugat’s illustration “Celestial Eyes” of a woman’s melancholy eyes hovering over the New York skyline.

One of my favorites of the editions, though, was Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms — the dust jacket with an Art Deco-style illustration, the book’s black cloth bound cover and small size, a perfect fit to hold — it looked and felt like a book.

Hemingway became involved with the production of his books, with their design and marketing. I understand he stipulated that every edition of his books have the same pagination, and I remember some older copies of the Scribner’s paperbacks I owned at one time had the same amount of pages as the facsimile editions I had; and even some hardback book club editions I bought at used book stores had the same amount of pages.

Outside of those First Edition Library books, I never really thought of book design, or its importance to the presentation of the book as a readable object. When I was just a reporter at the newspaper, I didn’t think much of the whole package — art, layout, etc. — as maybe I should have, but as an editor, it was my job to think about the design and build the pages for my section.

The whole package was an ever-present concern. I had to think about how that whole package was going to be received by the reader.

And now, in book publishing, I’m seeing even more how important the book’s design is to the reader or to the instructor, in the case of textbooks. A book has to have visual appeal. It has to look and feel like a book.

This is a round-about way to some thoughts I had about a recent post by freelance book designer Stephen Tiano. At his blog, he reviews a translation of a classic book on typography, Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book, The New Typography (Die neue Typographie).

In an early post Tiano writes about how the translation mimics the design and typography of Tschichold’s original, noting the paragraph styling that doesn’t feature paragraph indents on the first line throughout the text. To get a better idea of the description, I pulled up the excerpt on Amazon, and the paragraphs not only have no indents, but also lack space breaks.

The design is a little disturbing to the eye, but clearly Tschichold was ahead of his time. The block paragraph style, though with breaks between paragraphs, and often incorporating san serif fonts such as Arial or Helvetica, seems fairly standard for text online, and it’s a style we use in our textbooks. I like the style; it offers reader-friendly white space, and reader-friendly is important in a textbook. The white space also opens a spot for notetaking.

Curiously Tschichold renounced much of his adaptation of modernism as a style, because he began to consider some of the aspects of modernist design as fascistic and authoritarian, according to Wikipedia. He was persecuted when the Nazis came to power in Germany. They suspected him to be in association with communism, and suspect because modernism itself was suspect under the Nazi regime.



3 Responses to “Book Design: The Bibliophile Learns About Typography”

  1. Sarah-Jane Sanders July 2, 2007 at 12:16 pm #

    A very insightful post! Where did you work as an editor? How are you liking book publishing in comparison to newspaper production?

  2. tglasscock July 2, 2007 at 12:54 pm #


    Thanks for the comment. I worked for nine years at the Temple Daily Telegram. I started as a cops reporter and then became assistant editor and then editor of the Lifestyles and Religion section.

    I like book publishing. The deadlines are less strenuous than at the paper and the projects are actually much more varied, as far as not being locked to particular beats — I work on very different projects from math texts to hand tools to an ethics reader. Plus here I get to dabble in two loves — books and education. I adjuncted as a writing instructor for a semester at MCC before coming here full time. One thing I’m glad we’re doing here now is posting regularly to the blog. Writing regularly was one thing I missed about the paper, though I have done some freelance writing.


  3. Stephen Tiano July 4, 2007 at 9:48 pm #

    I dunno, Todd, I have the translation of Die neue Typographie in front of me as I type this, and I’m telling you—in person—I don’t get any sense of reader-friendly white space. I’ve been reading this book for what seems like forever now, three or four pages at a time, as it’s painful—no, not painful; rather it’s annoying—to look at the pages for more than a few minutes at a time. I try to read it in places that are pleasant for me—a marina, bed—so that i might be a itle more patient. But it’s tough.

    I read some about how Tschichold renounced a good deal of this take of his; but I’ll have to read at least some of his actual renunciation. As I get deeper into the slim book, I’m struck by how labored his attempts to make typography a metaphor for modern life seem.

    Ah, these young cultural Bolsheviks! Just kidding …

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