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NEWS, TYPE DESIGN · October 1, 2010

the smell of books

The following is the text from the presentation I gave at Matthew Carter’s AIGA Boston Fellows Award ceremony on September 24, 2010.

E-readers are finally here. There’s the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook, among others. As both a typographer and a reader, I’ve been very curious about the effect and the experience of this new medium. We’ve been waiting for this day almost as long as we’ve been waiting for flying cars.

But this summer I did most of my reading on my phone. I installed Amazon’s Kindle app and suddenly, I had an e-reader. Electronic books for my phone! These are not to be confused with phone books, which I am told are something completely different.

The typographic issues that arise when trying to fit a page of text onto a small screen are obvious, tedious to describe, and unnecessary to review for an audience of graphic designers.

I can tolerate the choppy line breaks and limited linear navigation for now. I do like being able to adjust the point size, and I really like being able to adjust the brightness of the background. I make it grey instead of white. And the convenience of carrying dozens of books around in my pocket is tremendous.

But not everyone likes e-readers. Fair enough, but sometimes these people get a little obsessive. The most vocal denouncers of ebooks seem fixated on one thing: the smell of printed books. Everyone always talks about this entrancing bookish perfume, a feature e-readers obviously don’t have. Perhaps this could actually be a public relations opportunity for publishers of paper books. For a limited time, buy this special hardcover edition! Now with 20% more book odor!

I’m personally not so interested in how e-readers smell or don’t smell. I’m certainly not recommending the rennaissance of smell-o-vision. However, after a few weeks of using an e-reader, I did discover a very basic issue, one that I was surprised hadn’t occurred to me sooner.

I had no idea what book I was reading.

I like to read fiction. My habit is to read more than one novel at a time – 2 or 3 is usual. I’ll even switch back and forth between them during a single sitting. An e-reader, with its capacity to store so many books, has the potential to work really well with this style of reading.

Except that the books all look the same. Exactly the same. The Corrections looks just like Harry Potter, which looks exactly like Journey to the Center of the Earth, and they all look just like my email.

I am aware that most people don’t read multiple books at a time like I do, but it highlighted a serious issue that affects all readers.

A printed book includes not only the content of the author’s words, but also visual content like the cover, the typography and the margins, as well as physical, tactile content like the printing, the paper, and the binding. All these things contribute to the book’s overall content and identity. In a well designed book, these details can do a lot to reinforce and enhance the story. For example, the illustration on the cover can echo the sense of time and place in the story’s setting, the personality of the typeface can add depth to the character’s voices, and the deckled edges of the pages can enhance the author’s prestige. All these things work together to create the reader’s experience of the book.

You could take one or two or three of these details away, and it wouldn’t have a big impact on the book’s content. When you take them all away, when every book you own looks the same, as in the case of e-books, the reader loses out.

It reminds me of an experiment that was done a few years ago. In early 2007, Washington Post staff writer Gene Weingarten proposed an experiment to Joshua Bell, one of the world’s best classical violinists. Bell would play his violin at a subway station during rush hour in Washington DC.

Weingarten wrote, “Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats averaged $100... In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control... Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc. As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn’t arrive until near the very end.”

Something over 1000 people walked by Bell as he played. Only a few stopped to listen. You probably heard this story on the news when it happened. And with it was this conclusion from many serious commentators: no one had time to listen to beautiful music anymore. We had lost the ability to appreciate beautiful things. It did not seem like good news for artists or designers.

But I don’t agree with this conclusion. All the Bell experiment did was to demonstrate some very basic principles of art. Context is important. There is a reason we build those nice concert halls for musicians like Joshua Bell. The presentation matters. That’s why creators of all kinds spend so much time trying to get it right. Details work together to make the biggest impact on the audience. The more senses you can appeal to, the more impact your creation can have. If you strip away all content but the supposed main event, the audience loses out on the full experience.

I can carry a shelf’s worth of books on the phone in my pocket. A whole shelf of books that all look the same as each other and the same as my email. Great works of literature have the potential to get lost in the crowd, just as Joshua Bell did playing violin in the subway at rush hour. It doesn’t matter how much crisper the e-reader’s screens get, how much the letter spacing improves, or even if they figure out how get them to smell like old books, we won’t be getting the full potential out of this new medium until that sameness is gone and the stories can be told using all the available supporting details.

One of those supporting details is, of course, the typography. The right typeface does more than make the text legible. It’s one of the things that adds to the character and depth of the presentation. In this sense, you can think of the role of a typeface, in any kind of book, as part of the story. Matthew Carter is the kind of craftsman who understands how much these details matter. He draws typefaces that can be used to tell beautiful stories.

But when I look at his work, there is more. There are also stories being told inside the typefaces themselves, even before they’re infused with any other narrative content. The story is told in the way the letters are drawn, in the character of the curves, in the amount of tension between the black and white, and in the way the details carefully connect to form the coherent system that is a good typeface. I admit that this is an abstract method of story telling but that is the most accurate way I can think of to describe it. It’s similar to how you can hear a story in the melodies and rhythms of a piece of music.

It’s this kind of craftsmanship that sets Matthew’s work apart, that gives his typefaces their readability as well as their impeccable spark. Through working with him and knowing him, I have the sense that his motivation comes from more than just his pride in a job well done. It comes from the deep respect and kindness he feels towards the audience, his readers.

I’m still waiting for the flying cars but e-readers are here. As the hype fades, the work of artists, designers, and creators of all sorts, figuring out how to really tell the stories, begins. For this, we need craftsman like Matthew. I thank him as one of his readers and as one of his students.


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