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Typographic Sanity

October 1, 2014 | by

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“The Blue Streak Comet,” a Linotype machine.

There’s a post over at Print Magazine about Frank Romano’s new book, History of the Linotype Company, which chronicles the rise and decline of the Linotype, a “glorious contraption” that was not so very long ago the industry standard for printing newspapers, magazines, catalogs, you name it. I’d be lying if I said I knew how it worked—to look at it is to imagine it taking your hand off—but fortunately there’s Wikipedia, which explains:

The linotype machine operator enters text on a ninety-character keyboard. The machine assembles matrices, which are molds for the letter forms, in a line. The assembled line is then cast as a single piece, called a slug, of type metal in a process known as “hot metal” typesetting. The matrices are then returned to the type magazine from which they came, to be reused later. This allows much faster typesetting and composition than original hand composition in which operators place down one pre-cast metal letter, punctuation mark or space at a time.

The machine was invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant who set up shop in Brooklyn. At the height of its powers, the machine was used in eighty-six countries and in 850 languages. And the public domain is teeming with miscellany from the Mergenthaler Company, which produced an endless succession of handbooks, manuals, brochures, and pamphlets, among them Linotype’s Shining Lines, a sort of trade magazine with impeccably designed cover art:

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The best publication I found is probably The Legibility of Type, a design fetishist’s vade mecum published by Mergenthaler in 1935; it opens with “Type Was Made to Read,” a kind of Lord’s Prayer for printers and typographers, as dictated by a foreman with an irritating tendency to speak in rhymed couplets:

Type Was Made to Read

“Type,” said the Foreman, “was made to read,
And that is a maxim it’s well to heed,
For the printer frequently gets a start
With a craze for ‘beauty,’ a bug for ‘art,’
Which holds him fast in a fearful gripe
And keeps him trying mad stunts with type,
With seventeen fonts and seventy styles
And borders by thousands and rules by miles.

“Type,” said the Foreman, “was made to read,
But the printer, oftentimes, in his greed
For novel features and ‘class’ and ‘tone,’
Forgets this fact he has always known
And sends out work that is fine to see
And ‘smart’ and ‘natty’ as it can be,
A job with a swagger and high-bred look,
But hard to read as a Chinese book!

 “Type,” said the Foreman, “was made to read,
And that should serve as the printer’s creed,
For work on the Linotype machine
Or hand-set jobs should be clear and clean,
Not ornamental, obscure, bizarre,
Composed of all of the fonts there are,
But simple, legible, quiet, plain,
A joy alike to the eye and brain!

“For art in printing is not the way
Of wild extravagance, weird display,
But rather the unobtrusive thrall
Of type that gives you no shock at all,
But draws your eyes to the page with zest
And holds your mind to the thought expressed;
We must keep ourselves to this simple creed,
Type was made—and is meant—to READ!”

The same pamphlet offers “Typographic Sanity,” a bombastic plea for order in the increasingly chaotic world of typesetting. It’s impressively solemn, for a piece of writing about fonts:

As the cold gray dawn breaks upon the morning after an orgy of tangled type design, a weary printing industry shakes its aching head and asks, “Whither are we bound?”

The descent was easy; from black to blacker, from fanciful to grotesque, from freaky to freakier, but when we have plumbed the depths, when the tastes of printer, of reader, are all thoroughly debauched, when we have achieved the ultimate in blackness, in illegibility, in riotous disorder—then to seek the return to the brighter regions of calm and ordered sanity; to reaccustom our ink-sated and jazz-jaded senses to a normal scale of values—this is labor, and this is the path that still lies ahead of the users of type.

The wave of reaction against the excesses of the last few years has been inevitable. Throughout the whole mad era, the Linotype organization has pleaded for moderation; for the guiding hand of good taste and good sense in the laudable quest for freshness of expression. In the face of insistent demands from many of its customers for surrender to the vagaries of the moment, it has striven to maintain its policy of typographic sincerity and to issue only typefaces of lasting worth. It would be a simple matter for the Company to design and cut matrices that would sell.

It took far more vision to refuse to issue worthless types merely for profit, and instead to present only those faces which are fundamentally sound in design and character and which will be a credit to the publisher who uses them.

The policy is not new with Linotype. It goes back to the very beginning of the Company’s typographic activity. This principle has been stated, restated and reiterated. It seems sound and sensible now, because it was sound and sensible when it was announced, and common sense doesn’t change with passing years.

“Ink-sated and jazz-jaded”—this is the work of a copywriter who clearly dabbles in poetry.

If you’re looking to kill a few more hours, I can also recommend a 1951 brochure advertising Corona, a Linotype-designed typeface “tested to provide top-level performance in newspapers and catalogs”:

 

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For sport, you can try various lines from it at cocktail parties—see how far “Probably at no other period in newspaper history has there been a need for printing news at such materially stepped-up speeds as were required during the recent hectic war years” gets you.

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Our Daily Correspondent

Crossroads of the World

October 1, 2014 | by

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Times Square from above. Photo: Anthony Quintano, via Wikimedia Commons

In Times Square, surrounded by embattled Elmos and superheroes, several of us stopped at the crosswalk to wait for the light to change. The blue font on the overhead news ticker looked so cartoonish, so sort of jolly, that it took a moment for the words’ discordant meaning to sink in.

It read: THREE WOMEN BEHEADED BY ISIS IN SYRIA.

I stood and stared in horror; next to me was a very old man bent nearly double by kyphosis.

“Was it you?” came a voice. I looked down; there was a guy in a tweed flat cap. “Was it you?” he said again, to the old man. The old man looked up at him in uncomprehending irritation.

“Did you do it?” the guy in the cap persisted, indicating the circling words above us.

The light changed then and, without acknowledging him, the older man began his laborious navigation of the crosswalk. Over his head, Tweed Cap gave me a broad wink. I looked away as quickly as possible.

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At Work

Everybody Knows Me: An Interview with Walter Matthau

October 1, 2014 | by

Matthau would be ninety-four today. The poet Aram Saroyan, his stepson, spoke to him in 1974 about the vagaries of fame.

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Matthau, left, with Maureen Stapleton and Jack Lemmon in a 1974 production of Juno and the Paycock at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum. Photo courtesy of the author

This interview took place at the kitchen table in the Matthau household in Pacific Palisades between two and three thirty in the morning on Monday, December 17, 1974. I was staying overnight in the guesthouse and had returned a short time earlier from a concert in Century City when I happened to catch Walter up and in a talking mood.

I’d known him since I was fourteen and he was thirty-seven, a well-established Broadway actor with a string of rave reviews in a succession of commercial flops. After his marriage to my mother, Carol, in 1959, I knew that he made occasional trips to Hollywood for movie or TV work, but understood that he was a “New York actor” and made the trips for money. After the Broadway smash he had in The Odd Couple in 1965, he began the move West and the transition from stage to screen, which, culminating in the screen version of The Odd Couple, established him as a movie star. During the transition, he had very nearly died of a coronary, an experience he was never noticeably reticent about.

Older than most stars—in his fifties by the time the dust settled again—Walter seemed to take fame in stride. But seeing him for the first time ensconced in his Pacific Palisades home with the high-powered trappings of Hollywood success, after having known him in what was by comparison a New York artistic bohemia, I couldn’t help being struck by the magnitude of the change. One felt that he relished being a movie star and at the same time regarded it with a certain skepticism, which extended to the business and his colleagues in it at large. When a movie he’d starred in received bad reviews, he sighed and said to Carol, We’re going have to start being nice to people again.

You’re back on the stage again in Juno and the Paycock. What’s that like, after ten years in the movies?

It’s very satisfying. Doing a good play on the stage is like eating a good meal at home—assuming your wife is a great cook, or that she’s hired a great cook. Doing a movie is like eating five hundred canapés at a cocktail party—you’re never really full. You don’t feel as though you’ve eaten a meal, and yet you can’t eat anymore. You’ve had a little hot dog here, and you’ve had a little caviar there, and a fish here, and a sardine. The feeling is just marvelous, especially if you’re good at what you’re doing, and I think I work much better on the stage because I have things to offer a stage that don’t show up in movies. Read More »

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On the Shelf

Instagram Meets the Death Wish, and Other News

October 1, 2014 | by

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Richard Prince’s show, “New Portraits.” Photo: the Gagosian Gallery

  • Richard Prince’s latest show: his Instagram feed, ink-jet-printed on canvas. “Is it art? Of course it’s art, though by a well-worn Warholian formula: the subjective objectified and the ephemeral iconized, in forms that appear to insult but actually conserve conventions of fine art … Possible cogent responses to the show include naughty delight and sincere abhorrence. My own was something like a wish to be dead—which, say what you want about it, is the surest defense against assaults of postmodernist attitude.”
  • You can probably guess where Louise Erdrich, who’s just won the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, comes down on the controversial logo of a certain NFL franchise: “It’s more than a stereotype, it’s an insult … It’s more of the same disregard for basic human dignity.”
  • Nell Zink sees the sights at the World Science Fiction Convention: “In one room, old folks discussing how society might function if rulers were programmed to be wise (Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels); in the next, young people defiantly setting the conditions under which they will watch TV.”
  • One way (perhaps not the best way) to liven up your history of classical philosophy: fill it with puns. “Once Adamson has spotted a pun in the distance, he will hunt it down and pry it from whatever linguistic comforts it may have once enjoyed … We can never prepare ourselves for ‘like a giraffe, Parmenides seems to be sticking his neck out too far.’ ”
  • “The rooms that hold the Museum of Natural History’s famous dioramas are vast and dimly lit. The dioramas themselves shine like stages in a darkened theater … That hushed public place is the private secret of every child in New York, I think.”

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From the Archive

W. S. Merwin on Sir Thomas Wyatt

September 30, 2014 | by

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Sir Thomas Wyatt, by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Since it’s both International Translation Day and W. S. Merwin’s eighty-seventh birthday (many happy returns!), today’s a fitting occasion to excerpt this interview from our Spring 2002 issue, in which Merwin discusses his translation of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso list to hunt,” from the sixteenth century. His interlocutor is the poet Jason Shinder.

Who so list to hount, I knowe where is an hynde,
   But as for me, helas, I may no more:
   The vayne travaill hath weried me so sore.
   I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde;
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
   Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore,
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
   Sins in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
   As well as I may spend his tyme in vain;
   And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
   Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame;
   And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.

W. S. MERWIN: I think this is probably the greatest sonnet Wyatt wrote, and I think it’s one of the greatest sonnets in English. I’ve known it for so many years, but it always startles me with the real strength of passion in it—and irony and freshness of language and the mixture of sensual feeling and bitterness that runs through the best of Wyatt. Take that first line—the whole courtly feeling about the opposite sex, which angers, quite rightly, the feminists—the pursuit of women becomes a kind of predacious pursuit: if hunting is what you want to do, I know a deer who’ll keep you busy. The speculation is that it’s about Anne Boleyn, and it may well be; it's certainly about a very elusive and uncatchable person. [...]

JASON SHINDER: To the modern ear, the language is also unfamiliar and difficult to access. As someone who reads Wyatt in public, how do you approach the poems?

MERWIN: We don't really know what Wyatt's language sounded like, and I’m not an expert on late Middle English and Tudor English. I don’t try to imitate what I think would be exact Tudor English. I don't try to put him into the modern American either. For example, the line “Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde.” I think the e in meanes was still slightly pronounced for Wyatt, so I keep it there. When I read these poems, they run through my mind like a piece of music.

Wyatt’s meter baffled Victorian editors—they tinkered with it until they got it into nice iambic pentameter and made it scan right. But iambic pentameter had little to do with it. My theory is that Wyatt’s meter was influenced by the lute—Wyatt was a great composer of lute songs, and I think he composed verse the way a lutanist would. His work is something in between metrical and syllabic verse. Read More »

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Our Daily Correspondent

Hints for Hosts

September 30, 2014 | by

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Jules-Alexandre Grün, A Group of Artists, 1929.

I have always planned to one day throw a big party and give everyone a survey at the door. Here is what it would say:

Hi! My name is: _______________________

I know:

☐ The Host
☐ The Hostess
☐ I came with a friend
☐ I’m crashing

I am from: ________________________________

Now I live: ________________________________

I have lived there for: _________________________

What I like about it: ___________________________

What I don't like about it: _______________________

My rent is*: _________________________________ *For New York Use Only

I went to school in: ________________________________

I graduated in: ________

(I am ____ years old.)

I work at: ________________________________________

I am:

☐ Married
☐ Coupled
         My partner is here: YES / NO.
         He/she is the one wearing ___________.
☐ Single
☐ Other

A few of my primary hobbies and interests are: ___________________________

____________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________

I am drinking: ____________________________________________________

Read More »

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