“Why Am I Here?” the Man Asked

stack of books
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What’s the purpose of a “sprint beyond the book”? I guess I’m here to find out.

I am both a book designer and a writer about typography and design, a typographer and an editor, an editorial designer and a reader. All those aspects of publishing and reading seem completely interrelated to me; I’m always surprised when someone concentrates on only one part or another. This “Sprint Beyond the Book” seems like an invitation to explore the ways in which all these parts fit together—not just today, or traditionally, but also in the future.

I’m not interested in just jettisoning the past of publishing and leaping bright-eyed into the unformed future without a thought. Nor am I interested in just re-creating the past of publishing in new forms, though I am committed to maintaining the strengths and the best traditions of book publishing and extending them in new ways.

E-books have followed the pattern set by other new technologies: like the earliest movies, which imitated stage plays, e-books have been imitating printed books, as though transferring a page spread from a printed book onto a screen would somehow be satisfactory. The reading medium is different. Besides obvious differences like backlit projected light rather than reflective light from a printed page (and the in-between forms of e-ink and its progeny), the most fundamental thing about how we read onscreen is that there are many screens: they’re not the same size, nor the same resolution, not necessarily the same aspect ratio (shape), and we look at them in a wide variety of physical situations (sitting at a desk, holding a tablet or laptop in, well, our lap, or peering at a phone screen in bright sunlight on a windy day).

As readers, we’ve gotten used to being able to change how what we’re reading is formatted—most obviously by increasing or decreasing the size of the letters. Just the act of changing the font size changes everything about the composition of the page; all those aspects of text design that a good book or editorial designer pays close attention to (and that a reader should never even notice, if they’re successful) get screwed up when the format is malleable.

What we need, then, is book pages that are smart, that adapt their design intelligently to changing circumstances; book designers of the future need tools that let us make decisions about how the design ought to change, so that we can set defaults for an e-book that will make it inviting and easy to read. (The user—the reader—may well change their settings from the defaults; but 99% of people never change the defaults at all, so they’d better be designed to work well right from the start.)

As the type designer Cyrus Highsmith has pointed out in his witty little book Inside Paragraphs (2012), the paragraph is the fundamental unit of how we read any extended text. And it’s the formatting of that paragraph that makes it readable. Starting with the invention of the word space in the Middle Ages, we’ve found ways to orchestrate and annotate the written word to make it easier to read. That’s what punctuation is all about; as Robert Bringhurst (1992) says, it’s essentially musical notation, telling us how to read the words. The typographer’s tools—line length, font size, color, spacing between letters and words and lines—all exist to help the author communicate and the reader hear.

So we’ve got our job cut out for us: to make up new forms for the book that preserve the values of reading and writing and publishing, while extending them into new areas and discovering what we can add to the art of cultural transmission.

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