Autumn 2000

Type: Science and conscience

How Typography Happens

Ruari McLean
The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, £22.50

The debate of style over content is clearly not a new one in book publishing. In 1919, W. A. Dwiggins and L. B. Siegfried published a parody that implied books only sold if they were one inch thick and were either printed on “egg box stock”,

or limited to seven words per page. This is one of many examples McLean reveals in this slim but exceptional publication.

Taken from the Sandars Lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge in 1983, McLean is clearly an old pro. His ambling pace is scattered with insights that are interesting and often witty. Hence, in the first of the three divisions “Britain and America” we learn that the printer Updike, “frequently lost his temper and threw things at his secretary – including even shears.” In the second, “Germany”, he notes that “it was a rule for the workmen to wash their hands before touching a sheet of paper,” and in the third, “France”, he laments “I wish I had known Vox” (referring to the typographer Maximilien Vox). As with An Essay on Typography by Eric Gill and About Alphabets by Hermann Zapf, this book is as much an insight into the author as the subject.

“Is typography an art or science?”: the sleeve question is never fully answered. I suspect McLean believes neither, and steers us in the direction of typography as craft, ending with Vox’s quote: “My only love is paper – printed paper. I eat it, I drink it, I dream of it: in it I find my best failures and my worst successes.”

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000

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