When it comes to typefaces -- known more formally as fonts -- I've long been an Arial man. Still, I'm typing this on my aging Mac in Helvetica. Why? I've finished reading Simon Garfield's irresistible Just My Type: A Book About Fonts (Gotham, $27.50) and have had my habits shaken up. I've learned that Arial -- because of its being favored by Microsoft as Helvetica-like -- isn't esteemed among those who arbitrate font esteem.
This isn't to suggest that Helvetica is held in particularly higher esteem. It isn't. Garfield -- who worried that writing this book would make him compulsively haunted by fonts and has reportedly discovered his worst fears materializing -- points out in his exhaustive coverage of the 560 typeface years since Gutenberg, the formerly acclaimed Helvetica has worn out its welcome in many quarters.
Just the challenge for this commentator: I'm forging along in what-the-Helvetica! mode, whether or not that's the font in which what I have to say on the subject shows up in print. I just want readers who, like me, are almost as fascinated by fonts as Garfield, to know how I decided to choose among the over 8,000 (and counting) typefaces in existence today. Not that Apple makes them all available, although it provides just for the clicking many of the most familiar and still popular.
Garfield's book is a tale of serifs and sans serifs, which is to say it's a tale of tails -- letters that have appendages poking out from the basic lines and sometimes curling away from them as differentiated from tail-less letters. As Garfield makes plain, however, his is not a matter of declared preferences between and among Futura, Caslon, Verdana, Gill Sans, Futiger, Garamond, Baskerville, Bodoni, Bembo, Courier, Didot, Comic Sans and the huge rest. (Okay, Garfield isn't a big Comic Sans booster.) He makes the case for variety when making the not inaccessible point that different ends require different means. He also stresses that readability and legibility aren't necessarily the same thing; neither, in his estimation, are beauty and clarity.
He repeatedly asserts that behind every important font is a man or woman who's set out to solve a problem. So he recounts the histories of people like Johannes Gutenberg and associate Peter Schoeffer as well as Geoffrey Chaucer printer William Caxton, Claude Garamond, William Caslon, John Baskerville, Giambattista Bodoni, Eric Gill of Gill Sans, Beatrice Warde (who believed, not unlike many others, that type is not there to be admired or even noticed but to communicate), Berthold Wolpe, Paul Renner and Matthew Carter (who, not unlike others, created several currently enduring typefaces).
Yes, there are scads more innovators, but they're too numerous to mention -- not when there's so much else to say about a volume printed mostly in Jan Tschichold's Sablon but also in samples of every other typeface mentioned. Who wouldn't be intrigued by his discussion of how prevailing typefaces affected development of Nazi propaganda? What about Garfield's humorous observations about the trouble font-knowledgeables have when encountering anachronistic usages in movies -- for instance, the appearance in LA Confidential, which is set in the 1950s, of a 1974 typeface? How about his attributing Barack Obama's 2008 victory to the choice of Gotham for all signage. He maintains that that typeface inevitably makes an "honest," "fair" impression.
Is Garfield handing the approval-deprived president a reelection guarantee? He surely hands readers a satisfaction guarantee with his many authoritative observations. One of the most astute, though, isn't his but is a quote from Jonathan Barnbrook, who created the Mason and Priori fonts, "Typography truly reflects the whole of human life, and it changes with each generation. It may well be the most direct visual representation of the tone of voice with which we express the spirit of the time."
Speaking of the spirit of the times, it may only be a slight stretch to bring in a consideration of Christopher Johnson's Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little (W. W. Norton, $19.95). While it's true that the writing about which linguistics-trained Johnson talks can theoretically be printed in any font, his discourse is centered on how to maximize economical expression in our sans-serif-tilted age.
A frequent naming consultant, Johnson offers what he considers an obligatory guidebook for anyone involved in the act of writing when being concise is the strict order of the day. He sees things as so changed he even refers to William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, co-authors of the influential Elements of Style, as "old fogies." (Possibly, Johnson means the harsh categorization as a joke.)
In coining the word "microstyle" -- or at least appropriating it -- he contrasts the approach to declaring oneself on the page (or towards tome's end, in cogent speech) with, as he sees it, an obsolescent "Big Style' tradition. Putting aside the irony of his having to ballyhoo "microstyle" through the implementation of "Big Style," it must be said that Johnson does make myriad important declarations about the construction of thoughts so they're rhythmic, and metaphoric, are persuasive when appropriately detailed, are even poetic -- declarations at which Strunk and White would undoubtedly nod their heads approvingly and which certainly satisfy the revered journalist's ABC (accuracy, brevity, clarity).
But shouting from between these lines, there's a larger and less attractive message. It's the story of an era Johnson seems to believe demands nothing in addition to "verbal attention economy." In the book, much of the current wit he locates is culled from uniformly marvelous Onion headlines and Twitter "tweets." Not only does he see nothing humorous about the origins and connotations of the words "twitter" and "tweet," but he fails to notice that to a large extent Twitter is an Internet outgrowth of the often intelligence-shrinking sound-bite. His buying whole-heartedly into the rampant contemporary condition -- with the implication that anything now written in 'Big Style" is hopelessly retrograde -- represents nothing more nor less than another instance of an insidious cultural dumbing-down he refuses to acknowledge.