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Book History and Print Culture at the Millennium (March 2014): Book and Design Production

by James K. Bracken

Book and Design Production

Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking, now in a third edition, offers standard definitions of the processes of book editing, design, and production, with a response to the notion that the Internet has changed everything.  Although he incorporates information about digital technologies throughout, Lee emphasizes the traditional duties of editors, designers, and others in making books.

A standard starting point for book design is Philip B. Meggs’s Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, now in a fifth edition with Alston W. Purvis.  The heavily illustrated volume offers a comprehensive, global survey of notable stages in graphic design’s development to the present.  Very much a textbook or reference work, it emphasizes influential schools, movements, and individuals.  For Meggs and Purvis, the book—either printed or digital—is clearly a form that will evolve through graphic design’s art.

Simon Garfield’s Just My Type is a very readable look at the history behind the names seen in computer toolbars’ pull-down font menus: Cooper Black, Garamond, Baskerville, and many more.  Garfield’s survey starts with Gutenberg and concludes with remarks on how Luc de Groot’s Calibri, Microsoft’s font of choice, has perhaps changed the whole look of mass communication.

A more traditional discussion of typography is Jerry Kelly’s elegant The Art of the Book in the Twentieth Century.  From the assertion that “All great book design is built around the single element of a fine type page,” Kelly describes the contributions of typographers like Bruce Rogers, Max Caflisch, and Hermann Zapf.  Again, check your toolbar’s fonts to see their names in typefaces.  Steven Heller and Louise Fili’s Scripts is a picture book of early- to mid-twentieth-century European and American typefaces.

Bonnie Mak’s How the Page Matters is a tantalizing title.  In tracking a single text from medieval manuscript to printed book and then to digital edition, Mak looks at the “dynamic” relationships of materials and meaning.  Her focus on the page—manuscript, printed, and digital—as a “mechanism” for organizing and transmitting ideas resonates with book history: each form has its own life history to be retold.

Peter Stoicheff and Andrew Taylor’s The Future of the Page is a collection of contributed conference papers that identify admirable features and attributes of pages from the past and present, with several offering visions of what pages could become.

Nicole Matthews and Nickianne Moody’s Judging a Book by Its Cover collects contributed essays about the significance of ephemeral dust jackets, showing that covers “really matter” in conveying authors’ messages to readers.

Richard A. Lupoff’s The Great American Paperback is a large, heavily illustrated coffee-table book about cheap paperbacks with sensationally illustrated covers, providing a record of popular titles up to the e-book and print on demand.

Finally, recognition that the communication circuit between author and readers can really close is presented in H. J. Jackson’s Marginalia.  Jackson examines what underlinings, pointing fingers, and other marginal notes say about the process of reading, thinking, and communicating, especially in periods of book scarcity, when books and their readers’ notes were intended to be shared.  Jackson’s study anticipates print’s critics who predict increased customization and author-reader interactivity in the digital book’s future.

Exemplars of good book design are delightful.  Blending chronology with themes, Des Cowley and Clare Williamson’s The World of the Book offers a comprehensive survey of the history of the book.  A notable emphasis on modernist literary high points is balanced by coverage of books from Australia and Japan and others about Pacific exploration.  Equally interesting is Alan Bartram’s Five Hundred Years of Book Design.  Bartram’s typographical examples refreshingly focus on books’ interior pages printed in roman types, instead of title pages.  An accompanying “A history of book printing in 3.5 pages” emphasizes attributes of typography and page design that impact readability.

Works Cited