The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

February 28, 2015
by Dan

Reading Posture


Tom Gauld for The New Yorker.

February 27, 2015
by Dan

Affordable, Unabridged and Pocket-sized: 80 Years of Penguin Books


At BBC Arts, Brian Morton writes about 80 years of Penguin paperbacks:

The ubiquity of Penguin books in modern British publishing conceals a paradox best expressed by founder Allen Lane’s colleague and biographer Jack Morpurgo, who said that even in Allen Lane’s lifetime, Penguin became “the least typical member of the genus it was said to have created”.

There had been paperbacks before Penguin – all French books were paperback for instance and Woolworth’s, soon to be a key outlet for the new imprint, sold their own cheap editions – but few ranged so eclectically and wide.

And, in a second article, he looks at the legacy of their covers:

No other house had quite Penguin’s confidence in design. Pan Books, which began publication a decade after, in the mid 40s, were defined by a Mervyn Peake colophon of the god playing his pipes, a hint perhaps that here was a house that wasn’t going to trouble you with books on microeconomics or English churches… but with something more sensuous and possibly sensual…

…At the opposite extreme, but no less successful in their way, were the Fontana Modern Masters which began publication under Frank Kermode’s editorship in the 1970s, combining seriousness, a quick-crib approach to major thinkers and a stunning simple visual device, which was that each group of books featured a tessellating cut-up of an abstract painting by Oliver Bevan.

Buy them all, lay them out on your table and you had a bit of modern art. Painterly abstraction and san-serif typeface seemed to go together and seemed to fit as well as Bevan’s angles…

…But it was Penguin which continued to perfect the idea of cheap books as items that might be collected and displayed.

February 27, 2015
by Dan

Masters of Letters


Sartorial site Mr Porter asks five designers — Mat Maitland, Eddie Opara, Sagi Haviv, Edwin Van Gelder, and Chip Kidd — about their favourite typeface. Here’s Eddie Opara of Pentagram on Berthold Wolpe’s Albertus, the typeface used for the street signs of the City of London:

I didn’t know what the font was until I got to design school. And I was so fascinated by it because of the way it’s cut. It’s based on metal engraving techniques, the effect being that it has is these acute angles, almost 45 degree angles in each letter. It’s also insanely hard to use. I’ve tried to use it and I’ve not been able to. Why is it my favourite font, then? I think that your favourite is always what you can’t have.

(via Theo Inglis)

February 26, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment

How The New York Times Works


In a fascinating piece for Popular Mechanics, Reeves Wiedeman looks at how the New York Times gets made in 2015. It’s interesting how their graphics department has evolved in the past few years:

The Times employs approximately 1,300 journalists, a classification that now includes much more than writers, editors, and photographers. There are videographers and developer–journalists and graphic designers, who insist that you not call them graphic designers. Every section of the paper has been affected by the Internet, but the graphics department is hardly recognizable from the days not long ago when, to accompany a story about Borneo, for example, it would simply produce a small black-and-white map of Borneo. [Graphics editor] Duenes’s desk still produces traditional newspaper graphics, but it also now employs thirty-five people who have expertise in statistics, programming, cartography, 3D modeling, motion graphics, audio production, or video editing. At the department’s two long desks, designer Haeyoun Park combs through data on the racial breakdown of police forces—a story the graphics team reported without any instigation from print reporters—while nearby Matt Bloch is updating the paper’s digital hurricane tracker… A breaking-news event might require eight members of Duenes’s team, who are otherwise free to focus on the kind of in-depth reporting for which the Times‘ print reporters are generally known. Last August a graphics editor who had been tracking police data for four years discovered that the New York Police Department had more or less ended its controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which some critics had described as racial profiling. This was news to the reporters on the Metro desk, and the editor there assigned a story to go along with the graphics department’s analysis.

The story, and the graphic, ran on the front page.

I also particularly liked the stuff about their R & D Lab:

The R&D Lab opened nine years ago with the goal of looking three to five years into the future. (TheTimes declined to say how much it cost to build.) Marc Frons, the company’s CIO says he has no idea how people will interact with theTimes in ten years, “whether it’s on your wrist, or your forehead, or you take a pill, or it’s a holographic contact lens, or a head-up display in your vehicle—or on your mirror in your bathroom.” The lab explored E Ink before the Kindle even existed, was responsible for delivering the earliest versions of the paper’s mobile news alerts, and helped the Times become the first publisher with an application on Google Glass. One of the lab’s researchers recently designed a brooch programmed to light up whenever a topic is mentioned that matches something the wearer read about online that day. What good would that do, exactly? Boggie answers with enthusiasm, “We don’t know yet!”

February 26, 2015
by Dan

Wear and Tear

Somewhat related to Timothy Young’s list of the 10 good reasons the book is important, Oliver Farry writes on the comfort of well-worn books for the New Statesman:

This is one of the attractions of wear and tear. Objects that feel lived in give us a comforting feeling of having come a long way, of having been through the years (or months, as it might be). There is also the sense of having done some work. Even reading a book can be denoted by the physical mark you leave on it – the cracking of a spine, its progressive warping as you work your way to the end. Occasionally when reading a secondhand paperback, a bookmark or a dog-eared page shows you where the last owner gave up – you feel momentarily like Amundsen discovering Scott’s encampment.

February 25, 2015
by Dan

Learning to Love the House Style

In a long and charming essay for The New Yorker, the magazine’s query proofreader Mary Norris muses on her career, and the history and uses of the comma:

Then I was allowed to work on the copydesk. It changed the way I read prose—I was paid to find mistakes, and it was a long time before I could once again read for pleasure. I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on. I had a paperback edition of Faulkner’s “The Hamlet” that was so riddled with typos that it almost ruined Flem Snopes for me. But, as I relaxed on the copydesk, I was sometimes even able to enjoy myself. There were writers who weren’t very good and yet were impossible to improve, like figure skaters who hit all the technical marks but have a limited artistic appeal and sport unflattering costumes. There were competent writers on interesting subjects who were just careless enough in their spelling and punctuation to keep a girl occupied. And there were writers whose prose came in so highly polished that I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to read them: John Updike, Pauline Kael, Mark Singer, Ian Frazier! In a way, these were the hardest, because the prose lulled me into complacency. They transcended the office of the copy editor. It was hard to stay alert for opportunities to meddle in an immaculate manuscript, yet if you missed something you couldn’t use that as an excuse.

Norris’s book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, will be published by W. W. Norton in April.

February 24, 2015
by Dan



I’m pretty sure ALL of these are BISAC codes. (It actually relates to this article in The Guardian)

See more of Tom Gauld’s cartoons here (or, better still, buy his book).

February 24, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment

Ten Good Reasons the Book is Important

Over at Design Observer, writer Timothy Young gives 10 reasons why the book is still important. Number seven is that it is an object fixed in time:

“A book can tell us about its status in history. If we look through first editions of Moby Dick or Leaves of Grass, we find that they give away information not only about when they were created, but also about the worlds in which they were created, by way of advertisements, bindings, the quality of their paper, and watermarks on that paper. Such components are often not captured by scanning or are flattened out to make them of negligible use. In Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold—his saga about how libraries microfilmed runs of newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s and then discarded them—one of his chief complaints was that the filmers skipped advertising supplements and cartoons: things that had been deemed unimportant.”

Here’s the full list:

  1. It is a piece of technology that lasts
  2. It needs very little, if any, extra technology to be accessed
  3. The book retains evidence
  4. Books are true to form
  5. Each copy of a book is potentially unique
  6. Printed items are consumable goods
  7. A book is an object fixed in time
  8. A book can be an object of beauty and human craftsmanship
  9. When you are reading a book in a public place, other people can see what you are reading
  10. The Internet will never contain every book

February 24, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment

Jesse and the Typewriter Shop

Related to yesterday’s post on Gramercy Typewriter Co. in New York, here’s a short film about U.S. Office Machines, one of the last remaining typewriter repair shops in Los Angeles:

(Thanks Sam!)

February 23, 2015
by Dan

The Last of the Typewriter Men


At Medium, Mary Pilon profiles Paul Schweitzer of Gramercy Typewriter Co. — a father-and-son business in the Flatiron District of New York that will still repair your typewriter:

“Computers are being updated all the time,” he said, rolling his eyes at a PC laptop his son keeps in the corner. “Your computer becomes obsolete in a very short amount of time. It’s slow. It doesn’t have enough memory. A new model comes out. A printer won’t work with it anymore. That Underwood over there” — he points at a gleaming, black machine fit for James Joyce — “it’s 100 years old. What computer is going to last 100 years?”

Schweitzer was also the subject of this 2012 documentary short by Prospect Productions:

And if you can’t get enough of this stuff, I was reminded of this 2010 Wired article about the last generation of typewriter repairmen in California.

February 23, 2015
by Dan

The Snooty Bookshop


We’ve all been there….

(by Tom Gauld, of course)

February 13, 2015
by Dan

Typeface Mechanics with Tobias Frere-Jones


You know when Tobias Frere-Jones starts discussing the mechanics of typefaces you should pay attention. In the first post of a new series, he looks at the “overshoot”:

Square shapes like H have a simple and stable relationship to the baseline and cap height. Their upper and lower edges coincide with these boundaries and stay put. But only a narrow sliver of an O is the full height, and the rest of the shape falls away. The parts that are too short greatly outnumber the parts that are big enough, so we conclude — wrongly, but very reliably — that the round shape is too small.

If the “correct” height appears inadequate, “too much” will look right. So the is made taller and deeper than the H, even if the most stringent mathematical reasoning would declare it incorrect. But we read with our eyes, not with rulers, so the eye should win every time. Typefaces from any period will demonstrate this compensation, often called “overshoot”.


%d bloggers like this: