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Like Ezra Said

Notes from the night out.

I had a conversation tonight about books, books-in-the-abstract. That was fine, inside of fuzzy life, to sit in a bar and discuss paper, type, lithography. My conversations are usually about machines and politics, and the way things are going to change, and what's wrong with each other.

I came home and searched out this paragraph from Bruce Rogers' Paragraphs on Printing, 1943:

Finally, it may be said that the decorative value of a simple page of beautiful type, beautifully printed, is a value quite apart from the esthetic pleasure given us by any other of the graphic arts. So elusive is it that it becomes difficult to analyze or describe; printing in its essential simplicity occupies a compartment all its own amongst the graphic arts.

This fundamental integrity, this one-ness, this bringing together all the parts into a whole, is the real art of printing. Holding to it, one may add and super-add whatever ornament his fancy may dictate or the subject admit; and if the decoration be good in itself and wisely chosen the completed work may be a thing of beauty. Abandon or even slight this integrity of pure typography and no amount of ornament, however beautiful, will compensate for its loss. It is in this quality of unity that our new typography is weakest. So many hampering considerations enter into every piece of work, so few printers are prepared to make the requisite sacrifices of time and money, that it is frequently difficult, sometimes impossible, to apply the knowledge and taste they may have acquired from study of fine examples of their art amongst the older work. You may be assured, however, that there is no golden road to fine printing. One must continually give his best effort, and only his best, to every piece of work he undertakes. The result will be a a lasting thing of beauty—or not—according to his capacity as a workman and his taste as an artist.

This fundamental integrity, this one-ness, this bringing together all the parts into a whole, is the real art of printing. Holding to it, one may add and super-add whatever ornament his fancy may dictate or the subject admit; and if the decoration be good in itself and wisely chosen the completed work may be a thing of beauty. Abandon or even slight this integrity of pure typography and no amount of ornament, however beautiful, will compensate for its loss. It is in this quality of unity that our new typography is weakest. So many hampering considerations enter into every piece of work, so few printers are prepared to make the requisite sacrifices of time and money, that it is frequently difficult, sometimes impossible, to apply the knowledge and taste they may have acquired from study of fine examples of their art amongst the older work. You may be assured, however, that there is no golden road to fine printing. One must continually give his best effort, and only his best, to every piece of work he undertakes. The result will be a a lasting thing of beauty—or not—according to his capacity as a workman and his taste as an artist.

Rogers' book terminates with a tremendous 3-page colophon, which wonders aloud if it is not perhaps “the longest colophon on record.” I take this personally, as a challenge for some day in the future, a challenge to create a colophon that transcends all colophons, a colophon that not only mentions the fonts of choice, but describes the sensuous lilt of certain descenders, offering prayers for good linespacing and a hymn to the golden ratio—a colophon that compares the kerned nestling of the “a” against the “W” in “Water” to the cuddling Madonna and child, and describes not only the paper that holds the ink but explains how the exact proportions of the lowercase “q” were debated so avidly that there was a stabbing in the foundry.

It is time for a colophon that explains how thousands of arbitrary heiroglyphs, the product of cognitive processes and some writer's yearnings, when arranged on the page, form a community of relationships, a living colony redolent in turn of monk's robes, boiling lead, and the chemical funk of the Linotronic spitting out its tongue of film. Time for a colophon that explains how a page of a book is a tangent off the great expanding unified sphere of language, with monkey grunts at its core and Web sites in its mantle. A colophon that explains how the linear strings of characters which make up prose or poetry can be broken into lines and arranged into sensuous comforts that salve the most polar loneliness. A colophon so overwritten as to make David Foster Wallace look like Raymond Carver, and by its very overwrittenness, absolutely transcendent, as dense as osmium and so obsidian-opaque in its beauty as to deny any reader whose soul is not purified a glance into its mysteries—a colophon which cannot be seen by the uninitiated, but is instead delivered to the pure of page by angels with san-serif wings at the moment of death, providing them with the sacred knowledge necessary to ascend to typographic heaven, where the true letterforms of which our own are only shadows are made manifest and the books are written using the infinite alphabet of the language of God.

Then Rogers' footnotes An Essay on Colophons by Alfred W. Pollard, published 1905, a book that I have just ordered with absolute anticipation. When that book arrives, all will be well in my life.

.  .  .  .  .  

Words encircle me, abundant and cheap, in the form of paperbacks and hardbound works of nonfiction. Machines do their letterspacing, supervised by mouse-clickers. I love my books but miss the smell and paper grain, the contact with the past, of the books I grew up with. All the works of Poe, with gilt edges. The volumes of Dickens. The Harvard Library. Marbled endpapers and pages where the emboss of the letterpress was deep enough to feel. These were not rare books, just old ones. Mossy, leatherbound Ruskins. George McDonald fairy tales. Collections of Scottish proverbs. The speeches of Burke. New Editions paperbacks, raw and young, or graying Penguins.

Obviously I am not alone in loving them. The new forms emulate them. Cascading Style Sheets allow you to define the appearance of type and images on a Web page with relative precision, and other systems, like TeX and Lout, make typesetting manuscripts a relatively simple process, abstracting pages, footnotes, and kerning into mathematical relationships, so that you need only provide the content in text and tags; the machine does the rest. Quark XPress gives gives you all that and a screen to look at.

The attempts to harken back to lost art, like McSweeney's traditional layout and abuse of ligatures, are ultimately artificial in intent. What I love in old books or magazines is that the content is not literary. It is often useless. Nothing is leadset today that is not literary. You will never see a freshly leadset recipe book, biography, or instruction book for secretaries. Just volumes of poetry and special editions, fetish objects using good type to notch themselves into the timeline of literature.

The Information Age is fine, but it looks so cheap. Usability and accessibility are fine things, but they are not beauty, at least not yet. Early books, if I remember correctly, attempted to simulate monastic inscriptions because mechanical printing seemed so cheap. But printing became its own art. And now we have the digital—and digital media, as everyone likes to point out, has its own language, its own meaning. So what we're all speaking here, all of us building Web pages, is pidgin, a smash-up of languages—not yet a creole, and certainly not a language with its own literature behind it.

Sometimes, because I live here too, I get furious at the people in the Weblog world, or Blogosphere, or whatever, as they stake their claims at conferences and trumpet their Panglossian hoo-ha, because they insist that our mutual baby is a genius, all grown up and ready to play. It's not. It's drooling and toothless. We have a pidgin slowly turning into a creole, and they hand us back Esperanto, because they can't claim conference fees by saying they don't know how it's going to go.

Standards bodies, big committees, and avid enthusiasts of CSS and XSL formatting objects (like me) are not misplacing their enthusiasm, but we can't speed history. The future will look back at our rough attempts, our 3D rotating objects and clickable links, as we look at the cribbed gothic lettering of old books; they'll take pleasure in our effort, but they'll see it as bound in its era, full of its own best practices, with the supreme confidence and consequent ignorance that we associate with the Victorians. And these people—these Weblog Theorists and Utopian Panglossian Cyber-libertarians—are Victorians, full of standards and rules for what you should and shouldn't do, confident in their own place in the world, preening in front of the mirror and whispering “you revolutionary.” Give me the Enlightenment any day, Hume and Franklin and hosiery, with its acceptance of ignorance and its faith in progress, and its fondness for pleasure. How can something as alive as the digital feel so often moribund, so Victorianized? What happened to Ezra Pound's “Make it new”? It seems like the advice is the opposite: “Make it old,” comfortable, similar, safe. Then blog it.

I am a man who loves colophons, and thus doomed. I am a man who loves Web sites, and the future is flush with possibilities. I don't have any answers at all, and mostly I have frustrations and visions in which a huge wall rises up before me inscribed with the words “Your Own Ignorance.” But then, even though I feel dumb as a brick, there's so much fun to be had fiddling around and figuring out where the links should go....


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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