We’re in something of a period of Enlightenment with regards to typography. Thanks to the ubiquity of computers that give every user a choice of what font to use, along with an increase in the number of young designers and design-interested people, fascination with typography among the general public has never been greater. As the genuine interest in typography becomes more and more mainstream, a demand exists for sensible resources, such as books and websites, aimed at both neophyte designers and the general public.
Simon Garfield’s “Just My Type” aspires to be one of those books. But it is not.
“Just My Type” reads exactly as if Garfield proposed “a book about fonts,” and then, upon securing a publishing deal, set out to learn enough about fonts to write a book about it. The result is a well-intentioned but sloppy book that focuses on anecdotes and personalities, instead of providing an organized introduction to the world of type.
A generous analysis of “Just My Type” is that Garfield hoped to lure in readers with gossip, and didn’t want to bore anyone with facts and fundamentals. Even if this is the case, the opportunities he misses are impressive. Garfield mentions the fundamental difference between a “typeface” and a “font,” but then gets bogged down in the origin of the word “font” and finally claims that “in common parlance, we use font and typeface interchangeably,” followed by one of my favorite lines in the book: “Definitions should not cloud our appreciation of type … ”.
Certainly not, and in Garfield’s world, the appreciation of type is crystal clear, unclouded by such troublesome “definitions”. In the few pages following this statement, the author then offers some definitions, but, perhaps in fear of those clouds, swerves into a story about a newspaper hoax involving the island of San Seriffe. It’s all very jolly, but, in my estimation, more clouding than crystallizing — if the point is to teach the meaning of serifs and their uses in type design. Similarly, Garfield attempts to discuss basic type anatomy and classifications, but, again, claims that type will “resist absolute categorization until it is worn thin”. Yet any design teacher could helpfully describe a few basic classifications that would aid in the understanding of typography through the ages. Surrounding these vague claims of un-classifiability are a series of unhelpful, poorly labeled diagrams attempting to show things like x-height, ligatures, descenders, and ascenders. If you already know this stuff, you’ll be able to tell what Garfield’s talking about; if you’re actually reading this book with the intention of learning something, you’re out of luck. Again.
It’d be easy to tear this book apart, and it must seem like I’m warming up to give it a right rending. But Paul Shaw has already done this, eloquently, in his review for Imprint and on his own blog, both of which are well worth a read, and it’d be redundant to repeat all of that here.
I’ll keep it simple: If you are interested in typography, and learning more about typefaces, and how type works, don’t bother with “Just My Type”. There are many well-written books that provide beginning and intermediate typographers with a foundation of information, using systems, classifications, beautiful examples, excellent diagrams and art, and, yes, even a sense of humor.
For an excellent introduction to typography, get your hands on “Stop Stealing Sheep, and Learn How Type Works” by Erik Spiekermann and E. M. Ginger. Robert Bringhurst’s classic “The Elements of Typographic Style” provides instruction as well as the history of typography and fine typesetting, and is an indispensable resource for book designers and typographers. For an in-depth, workbook-style look at typesetting, read Carolina de Bartolo’s “Explorations in Typography” (or just visit the book’s terrific website). And Ellen Lupton’s “Thinking With Type” is a good all-round introduction for students, or for teaching oneself the basics.
The amazing thing about typography is that you can go your whole life never thinking about it (or so I’ve heard) yet once you begin to study it, you discover a vein of material so rich enough to mine for a lifetime. Typography is about the way we form language into pictures. It is where the literary and visual arts rub together and make sparks. And those sparks are visible to anyone who wants to see them.
The field remains open for a book that will appeal to the casual reader with a genuine interest in learning more about fonts. Those who fit that description would do better to watch Gary Hustwit’s film “Helvetica”, a fun and engaging introduction to typography and graphic design; and this is the first book review I’ve ever written that suggests you go see a movie instead. Rather than dwell on that, I’ll extend my welcome to readers who come to Typographica wishing to learn more about type. And to those readers with more experience and knowledge, an invitation to suggest typographically splendid books and websites in the comment area below.