Dear Alphabettes, when an author says they’ve written a book, don’t they mean they wrote a text?

We’re being a little cheeky here. This question wasn’t really addressed to Dear Alphabettes, but since we’re on the subject of answering things without being asked, we thought we’d leave our contribution anyway.

One of the temptations is to start this text (in this case, a blog post, not a book!) by asking the broader question: what are books? It reminds me of an episode of Look Around You. Talk about derailing… A book is a book is a book.

When an author says they have written a book, what they mean, and what the vast majority of people understand that they mean, is that they have written the content of the book.

Now you may insist: isn’t the content of a book the same as a text? Usually it would be in text form, yes, although I suppose if an author’s process was to narrate the contents of their book into, say, a recording device, rather than writing it down, we would still say they wrote a book, even if they hadn’t, strictly speaking, written anything down.
Similarly, if you listen to an audiobook, the content would be experienced through sounds, and it would still be a book.

When we hear the word “book”, we tend to picture it in codex form. Printed and bound, a physical object, a set of printed sheets of paper held together inside a cover. The platonic ideal of books. That rules out literature and text written in scrolls, clay or stone tablets, etc. The saying goes we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and yet here we are, defining a book by its shape rather than its contents. Today, however, many books are not even published in printed form, and are available only on e-readers. They are still books.

So let’s not purposely obfuscate things here. When someone says they wrote a book, we all know what it means. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter. We understand that they wrote those books, and we are not talking about the physical act of writing (with a pen or a computer), or the physical shape of any specific edition of the book.

As a group of women involved in lettering, typography and type design, we tend to enjoy the physical form of books and, more broadly, the physical form of letters that give shape to written content. There are many hands, eyes and brains that bring the book that the author wrote into the finished form that the reader will hold in their hands, or read through their screens, or listen to through their headphones, etc. Many of us work full-time contributing to this process. We appreciate and celebrate it and we imagine most of our readers do too.

Let’s continue to celebrate all the people that bring books into existence, starting with the people who write them.

 
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Dear Alphabettes: What was the best discovery or mind blown experience you’ve had in an archive?

Dear A,

I guess one of your first visits to an archive, or a library, or museum of things related to your interesest will always be one of the most memorable. Even if the things and facts that blew your mind then seem funny (to say the least) today.

I remember my first visit at the Anna Amalia library in Weimar in 1997. I had just come back from an internship in the Netherlands that a.o. brought me to the Plantijn Moretus museum, guided by Fred Smeijers. For a young type enthusiast bursting of curiosity (more than knowledge) there is already barely a more mind-blowing experience imaginable than holding punches by Hendrik van den Keere et al. and learning about how they made them. There, I had Fred to answer all my questions and put things in context.

Fast forward a few weeks later, by myself back in Weimar, I was looking at these marvelous books printed by the private Cranach Presse of count Harry Kessler which by themselves are totally mind-blowing! In case you ever have a chance to see their edition of Hamlet printed on vellum, it’s INSANE! I wanted to know all about these books, who made them, what these typefaces are, and who had made those, who the illustrations, the binding … I had so many questions I couldn’t quite put into order or connect, or even know what keywords to search for in the library’s physical card-based catalog, pre-Google. How for instance is it possible they say this type in the Vergil is Jenson when other books say that guy is long dead and from the 1400s, oh ok, a guy called Edward Price then, and who is Emery Walker? And the whole can of worms of private presses and revivals opened in front of me.

It was there where I finally “got” type history – painstakingly, embarrassing and on my own, even though I had read Counterpunch and saw Fred work for months. I guess the things you painfully figure out yourself are always the stuff that really sticks, and boy was I proud of myself and my “amazing research” (that everyone else but me already knew).

When I came to Fred with my findings and excitement about all these fancy private press books and typefaces he just shrugged and said (something like) “Private Press books are shit. Making cheap books beautiful is the real challenge and art”. I was disappointed right that moment, but sleeping on it, I knew he was right. Cured my interest in fancy press books forever.

Best, Indra

(Comments are open! I’m curious about your archive and library stories.)

 
Do you also have a question about mind-blowing experiences, the universe, or everything else? Tweet at us @alphabettes_org and if the answer doesn’t fit into a tweet, we may reply here.

Film review: Graphic Means

A detail from the Graphic Means official poster.

If you were a part of this era, but especially if you weren’t, you must see Graphic Means.

These days, it is easier to find information regarding printing in 15th century Europe than graphic design processes in the United States during the 1970s and ’80s. The latter, the focus of Graphic Means, was a major transition for the design and printing industry as centuries old procedures and machinery made way for photographic processes and eventually digital technology. This dramatic shift has not been well-documented, perhaps due to the quick speed of the conversion or that it is still in recent memory.

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RIP Margo Chase 1958–2017

I was very sad to hear about the sudden passing of designer Margo Chase. As a teenager in the 90s, it’s hard not to recognize Chase’s impact on the visual language of popular culture in those formative years (Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Dracula! Madonna!). Her lettering, logos, and typefaces are emblematic of an era where forms were being developed and explored that truly expressed digitality. If you’re not familiar with Chase’s work, check out these short interviews on Lynda.com, especially Logos and lettering, which includes some discussion of her early influences and process, and Gothic design where she talks about her cover design for Letter Arts Review, and her typefaces (thanks Typographica for the link). Some nice tributes can be found on Brand New, Graphic Design USA, Art Chantry’s Facebook post, Richard Lipton’s instagram post, The Dieline, among many others.

Margo Chase is an inspiration to all designers. As the founder of her own agency AND an accomplished acrobatics pilot, Alphabettes salutes this pioneering woman who left a mark on our profession.

Letters in Letters
A chat with Carolyn Porter

If you have been following my interview series here on the blog, you might already know that there is a well-defined structure for those conversations. Today, I want to share an interview done in a different way. It will be quicker, a bit more friendly and not any less personal. Carolyn recently published a typeface and a book, and those two were good enough reasons to sit down and enjoy a virtual conversation about the process.

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Exhibition Review: The Calligraphy Revival 1906–2016

Diane von Arx, United States, 2002

The Grolier Club’s exhibition The Calligraphy Revival 1906–2016 (May 17 – July 29, 2017; 10am–5pm Mon–Sat; free admission) is a unique opportunity for anyone interested in applications of western letterforms to experience firsthand the breadth of calligraphy’s beauty as well as its utility. The exhibition, curated by Jerry Kelly, features works by a diverse range of calligraphers. It runs the gamut from art to design to handwriting and often defies categorization.

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