Survival of the Fontest: A review of Printing Types by Daniel Berkeley Updike

Printing Types: Their History, Forms and Use, a study in survivals by Daniel Berkeley Updike, Harvard University Press, 1962, 2 Vols.

I cannot think of many books I have read that have changed the way I look at the made world around me as much as this one. I picked it up at the Lifeline Book fair in Canberra about a month ago, and started reading it immediately. It is about the potentially dry topic of printing types.

It is anything but dry; it is lively, opinionated, and massively informative. The author clearly has his preferences and dislikes, and they are hard to argue with. In essence, a wonderful typeface is one that reads easily word by word and line by line, and at the same time looks beautiful on the page. Surprisingly few types meet these criteria. Outstanding examples include the work of Jenson, early Caslon and a few others, including presumably the “Oxford” type, sourced from the American Type Founders Company, in which the book is set.

Printing Types dust jacketThe cover of the 1962 edition.

The book, in its two volumes, traces the story of printing, through the prism of its types, from before Gutenberg — in the Netherlands a somewhat hazy figure called Coster seems to have used crude movable type first, but the quality was not high enough to cause the idea to prosper — through to the ‘present day’ which for the book is really about 1914. Though this is the third edition, from 1962, the 20th century is not really addressed.

In extremely broad outline, after the first books were printed in blackletter (an example is Fraktur, or what is often known today as ‘gothic’), by 1470 the heights of Jenson’s roman were reached — and it is all downhill from there. His comments on Jenson’s font rather sum up outlook of the whole book:

The characteristics of Jenson’s font were its readability, its mellowness of form, and the evenness of colour in mass. Analyzed closely, his letter-forms were not very perfect; had they been so, their effect would not have been so good; for, as an authority has said, “a type too ideal in its perfection is not an ideal type.” The eye becomes tired when each character is absolutely perfect. Thus the good effect of the type in mass depends somewhat upon the variations in, and consequent “movement” of, its integral parts.

In other words, they have a human warmth about them yet they do not look quirky — no one letter stands out from the others to trip us up as we read.  A similar effect was achieved by the original Caslon types in England much later.

He then goes on to describe how as printing ceased to be influenced by the hand-written manuscripts it had replaced, and became a business in which to make money, it degenerated. And even as its technical perfection increased, the type faces became more regular, icier, and less easy on the eye, though more consistently and reproducibly formed, a trend that culminated in the Didot fonts early in the 19th century, which the author clearly dislikes, though he is prepared to admit their ‘perfection’ (if you like that sort of thing).

He knows what he likes. A random page discussing German types and printing the the 18th century notes

If a well-known printer wrote and printed a book about printing, one would certainly expect him to execute it as well as he knew how; and perhaps Breitkopf did, but his quarto volume Ueber die Geschichte der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst, published at Leipsic in 1779, is printed on miserable paper, in ugly fraktur type, poorly composed — a volume such

As to be hated needs but to be seen.

Such blunt assessments, often quite evocatively phrased, coupled with many excellent reproductions of the types he is discussing, and embellished by pocket biographies of important type cutters, printers and book designers, make the work very engaging, informative and even inspiring.

Updike makes the point that the type, the words on the page, are the means by which ideas, stories and information are transmitted. (Apart from types being easier or harder to read for page after page, and looking beautiful on the page (or not), studies have shown that choice of type can affect our likelihood of believing a statement.)  As such, they are a crucial yet taken-for-granted part of any work in print.  We only notice them when something has gone wrong.

We have all read books where the print was too small, the leading insufficient or whatever. This may be just me, but I recall a novel, I think it was one of the Gormenghast books, where the type was rather angular; in particular the commas looked like a square, tilted to sit on a little spike that grew out of one corner. That I remember that so clearly says that, for me at least, the type was not well chosen; and indeed Updike comments

Our composing-room has, therefore, only about seven series of standard types for book work, and in all about a score of varieties: “For what, then,” the reader may ask, “are all the other types in founders’ specimen-books?” My answer would be, “Chiefly to avoid.”

I am never going to look at a book the same way again. Reading Printing Types has already made me look at other books through new eyes, made me aware of aspects of them that would have previously passed me by. I’m a little worried it’s going to leave me focusing on presentation when I really want to get on with reading the content. I guess a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. On the other hand, for a well-made book it will give me something more to appreciate…

Lastly, the book is (apparently) out of copyright and available on the web for free. There is some irony in a book about types, and often discussing what makes a beautiful book, being available as a reformatted web edition. Should you get it from the web, I strongly recommend a version that reproduces the pages rather than resets the text. And it absolutely must show the more than 350 figures — examples of types, and borders, flowers and pages and so on from the beginnings of the art onwards. Though Updike’s text is informative and entertaining, without the examples of the types he is talking about it loses too much of its value.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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