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Peter Clothier

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The Form of the Book

Posted: 10/22/09 06:07 PM ET

I'm rediscovering the pleasure of holding a nicely-made book in my hands. Most books these days, even the hardcover ones, have a mass-produced feel to them. No matter how well designed they are, how good the "look" of them, the paper feels toothless and the pages are hard to turn, the print is unexceptional, slick, and hard to keep one's eyes on.

The one I'm reading now -- more detail later -- is special. It stands out from every other book I've read recently, and I was not surprised to find that it was designed by its own author, a former Buddhist monk. I can't resist quoting from his postscript, entitled "Colophon" -- an end note about the book's authorship and printing. Here what he says about his choice of typeface:


This book is set in Linotype Sabon Next. In creating this typeface, Jean Francois Porchez revived a revival. The original Sabon typeface designed by Jan Tschichold was itself a revival of Claude Garamond's 16th century types for the 1960's. By referring to the original metal versions of Sabon for Linotype casting, Monotype machines and hand-setting, as well as Garamond's 16th century pages, Porchez has created a typeface of great utility and beauty.

Now there's devotion to detail for you. In the same passage, the author acknowledges the inspiration of Tschichold's collection of essays, The Form of the Book, subtitled Essays on the Morality of Good Design, whose "hilariously rigid principles," he writes, "have gravely influenced my ability to communicate visually and literally." Absolutely!

Don't you want to run out and buy this book, which so honors its own form. When you have it in your hands you have ... well, a real book. The typeface is attractive, inviting, and easy on the eye, which does not tire at all while reading. The paper has tooth to it, comfortable to the touch, and the pages turn effortlessly as you read. A further delicious touch is that the front ends of the paper, where the fingers reach to turn the page, are not straight cut, but ragged, torn. They remind me of those old French Gallimard publications (do they still do this?) where the pages were not even cut. You had to work with a paper knife to slice them open, to get inside the book to read.

What is this marvel of a book? It's called The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I quit & What I Learned, by Stephen Schettini -- an improbable name for a man brought up in Gloucestershire, England -- but then his journey, as I'm beginning to discover as I read, is improbable, too. The title is published in Canada by Greenleaf Book Group Press, and the quality of the book alone is more than worth its price. I'll be talking more about the content in due course. Suffice it to say that the texture of the writing is as meticulously attentive to detail as the book itself.

It's good to know that even in these days of often shoddy mass production, this kind of quality is still attainable to those who strive for it.