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books: to have and to hold.

Updated: Jan 9, 2019

The disappearance of bookstores goes beyond the literary world. It also marks the end of an era for the designers who make printed books — objects many of us love to have and to hold.

Book-making is a great gig for compulsive types: people like me who aren’t happy until things ‘look right’ and only understand a job well done when we can hold the finished product in our hands. As a group, we tend not to go into careers involving abstractions like trading credit default options or motivational speaking.

Instead, we are people who appreciate a fine tip pen, a well-placed dingbat and how tailoring a Pantone color by one, two or .25 percentage points of C, M, Y or K is the only way to get a perfect blue.

My first job was in book design. Junior designers didn’t get the glam job of the dust jacket until they’d done time at the bottom. The illustration and jazzed up title were the art directors domains, and even then, they usually had to be revised a dozen times before the publisher would sign-off on the dummy.

But early on, I was given full-rein of the naked book and I made the most out of the restrictive palette. Things the general public might not notice, like choosing the headband — that 1/16'' patterned or solid piece of material that peeks out from the edge of the binding. When books used to be bound by sewing, they had a structural component, but now they are mostly decorative. Once when I was in a subversive mood, I chose a lime green and pink polka dot headband for a serious non-fiction tome. Trust me, few noticed, but damn, it felt good to make my mark.

The minutiae seemed tailor-made for my sensibilities back then. Choosing the weight and tooth of the paper, especially when the budget allowed for extra bling like metallic edging on all three sides or — ooh-la-la—deckled edges. The choice of fabric—nubby or smooth—and whether the title would be recessed or raised felt important.

Sometimes the book and its jacket could have completely different type faces and I could choose the font on the actual hard cover. Here's the thing about fonts: they look different on paper and fabric than they do on the computer. They carry more weight (literally). And paper color changes how they look: book designers know there's a vast chasm between bright white with a smooth finish and warm ivory with linen pulp. The texture, thickness, shape and quality of the paper effect the look and feel of printed words.

For a book cover, fonts that willfully jump off the display table are encouraged; iconoclasts with names like Giddy Up, Grunge, NASA, Tiki Surf and Jock Strap. Probably better to go with something more demure for a book on Renaissance architecture or World War II, but hey, everyone's got their type. I use the utilitarian Arial on this website (talk about a controlling font) and Times New Roman when submitting articles (predictable).

Even letters have personalities.

My favorite, hands down, is the serif version of the lower case ‘g' in a traditional, run-in-the mill font like Garamond or Bookman. Those guys are total hams. (Gs s seem male to me and Qs and Ss, female. E upper and lower read as gender neutral).

I find g’s madcap single ear boing-ing to the side like a pom-pom totally endearing. And the furling, sinuous link that connects his upper and lower counters is about as close as a letter can get to being Jim Carey. I like to picture him seated next to the swash and tail of an uppercase script Q. You know her sort—maybe a Bickham or a Snell, prone to hyperbole with an obviously-faux British accent. The drama between those two letters would be off the charts. Of course this only conjecture; there’s no scenario in the English language where they would be hanging out next to each another (at least not with out some sort of grammatical intervention).

I was recently at a chic restaurant and next to me was a couple enjoying the last of their braised octopus. I almost didn’t notice their daughter, slumped over to the side in the booth. She looked to be about seven and, in lieu of an iPad, she had an actual book smashed up against her face so she could read in the dim light. It was Harriet the Spy.

I probably read that book a thousand times when I was young— Harriet was such a flinty, cool character. Seeing the girl in the restaurant reminded me not just of the story, but also of the worn-out copy I kept next to my bed for years. I still remember the 70s acid-yellow cloth binding, the block of orange behind the chunky, teetering black title font and slight mildew scent left over from a family beach vacation. Best of all, there was an embossed image on the base of the spine: Harriet wearing a hoody, truckin' along, with places to go and a book in her hand.


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