Beauty and the Book
by William Zinsser


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I often see a review of a new book that I know I would enjoy.  It’s by one of my favorite writers, or it’s about a subject that interests me, or it tells an unusual story.  I make a mental note to buy it, and when I next go into a bookstore, I take it down from the shelf.  That’s when I discover that I wouldn’t enjoy the book after all.  As a physical object it’s so uglybad design, or bad paper, or bad printing, or bad bindingthat it kills my desire to read it.  I put it back on the shelf, disappointed that the writer and I are not to have our tryst after all.  Mostly, I’m annoyed at the publisher for forgetting that a pleasing book must not only please the mind.  It must also please the eye that reads it and the hand that holds it.

It’s not as if the technology doesn’t exist; beautiful books have been around since the Middle Ages.  Some of the most legible and popular typefaces in use today go back to the 18th century and still carry the name of the typecutter who created themBaskerville, Bodoni, Caslonand those faces in turn owe a debt to the graceful letters that every tourist has seen on the monuments of ancient Rome.  To set a book in a type that disregards or tampers with such long-proven optical principles is a slap at the reader.

Paper is also not a new technology.   Printers have long known that type is harder to read if it’s printed on paper that’s too glossy (the letters shimmer), or too porous (the letters lose their sharpness), or too dark (the letters recede), or too thin (the letters on the other side show through).  Binding, another ancient craft, is equally laden with perils.  I don’t like a book that creaks and groans when I open it, or a book bound in such heavy boards that it dents my stomach when I read it in bed.  Finally, how is the type arranged on the page?  Is it too small for comfortable reading?  Are the margins wide enough?  Is there too little space between the lines, or too much?  Writing is a visual invitation to go on a journey.  Does the trip look inviting?  Or does it look cramped and crowded?

I come it this subject negatively in order to accentuate the positive.  Doing something well in the arts is largely a question of not doing certain fundamental things badly, and a fine book, like a fine symphony or fine painting, is the result of a quest for excellence in the smallest details.  My own exposure to that world goes back to my boyhood, when I had a printing press in the attic of our house.  I spent as much time studying my books of type as I did studying my collection of baseball cards; Giambattista Bodoni and Joe DiMaggio were on the same scale of my admiration.  I liked how the great type designersnot only the old masters but the modern giants like W.A. Dwiggins and Bruce Pogersachieved a certain emotional weight with the thickness or thinness of their letter strokes, the delicacy of their serifs, the perfect equilibrium between letters that descend (but not too low) and those that ascend (but not too high).

All those type faces took on a distinctive personality for me.  I began to think of them as familiar friends, waiting for me in books and magazines, and when I grew up and became a writer myself I insisted on having my books set in a type that reflected my own personality and the subject I was writing about.  My books about writing, like On Writing Well and Writing to Learn, are set in Dwiggin’s Caledonia, which has 20th-century vigor, absolute clarity and no fussiness; I wanted Caledonia as my helper in teaching people how to write.  My books about America, like Spring Training and American Places, are set in Jansen, a classical face that is warmer and more humanistic.  It’s exactly the invitation I want to extend to readers who are signing up for a leisurely trip.

My lifelong love affair with typography, like my love affair with baseball, has never abated.  Just as I still marvel at the flawless execution of a double play on late-night television, I still love to open a book that has been executed with deep knowledge and intuitive skill.  From the moment I pick up the book, it feels right in my hands.  Inside, the tide page is a model of symmetry and rhythm, an advance hint of the gracefulness that I’ll find throughoutin the chapter titles, the ornaments, the “running heads” at the top of each page, and the text itself.

The text type is handsome and clear, big enough to read easily, and the pageat a glancehas just the right number of lines of type; they don’t crowd the bottom of the page or threaten to fall off.  The margins are also generous on top and on the sides, especially in the central “gutter”; I don’t need to squint to read type that runs slightly downhill into that abyss.  The paper has no glare: it’s not too shiny or too white.  It’s a subtle shade of off-white, and it weighs just enough and is just opaque enough to hold the ink cleanly and not show any printing from the reverse side.

I flip through the pages in a state of high contentment, savoring the consistency of judgment and taste from beginning to end; even the index looks inviting. In fact, the book as an object gives me so much pleasure that I hardly need to read it. But that’s what it makes me want to do.

William Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher.  His fifteen books range in subject from jazz to baseball and include the influential On Writing Well, now in its sixth edition, and Writing to Learn.  This essay is reprinted from Zindart's 1998 annual report, pp. 8-9.   See www.globalprovince.com/1998arpicks.htm (#7) for more information.

 


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Copyright 1998 by William Zinsser

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