Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A short note about a typeface (Caslon, specifically)

I just received my copy of the Commonweal Associates Newsletter, an occasional publication for supporters of Commonweal magazine. In amongst the other news items was the following:
After redesigning the magazine in 2005, we fielded a good deal of compliments--and complaints. Reader response was mostly positive, but even fans of the revised look wondered whether the new typeface wasn't a touch too light. Well, as Jesus taught, ask and you shall receive, within at least six years. Our new new typeface, which debuted in the fall, is Caslon. It replaces the thinner-cut Goudy in headlines and body copy. You may recognize it from a little-known periodical called the New Yorker. If you haven't noticed, don't panic--the change is subtle. But important. A magazine as weighty as Commonweal ought not be printed in too light a typeface.

This assertion--that a "weighty" magazine demands a "weighty" typeface--is likely one we don't often think too much about. It brought to my mind a wonderful little book by E.R. Wendland and J.P. Louw, Graphic Design and Bible Reading,wherein they remind us that, "in the end, format does have meaning and people will assign a certain sense to the lay-out of a text according to how they happen to perceive it and interpret it" [37].

A typeface communicates more than just the words for which it is employed. It communicates a character, added-to those words. Erik Spiekermann, in his foundational Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works,makes clear that this type-character is expected to be a good match for the genre and purpose of the printed text. "Just as business people are expected to wear a suit (plus, naturally, a shirt and tie), text set for business has to look fairly serious and go about its purpose in an inconspicuous, well-organized way" [65]. Following this logic, it is only natural that "weighty" magazines are expected to sport "weighty" fonts. Serious is as serious does, after all.

Needless to say, I found it quite delightful that a magazine staff would actually come out and admit the rationale for choosing one typeface over another. While these decisions are invariably made with deliberation and care, it is not so often we get a glimpse behind the scenes into the machinations.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

NPR Reports on "How the King James Bible 'Begat' English Idioms"

A few weeks back NPR's Talk of the Nation featured a conversation with David Crystal regarding his recent book Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. In the book, Crystal set out to answer the question, "How many English language idioms come from the King James Bible?" The answer? Not as many as most people think.

"I found 257," says Crystal.

Of particular interest to me is Crystal's observation that many of the phrases that folks attribute to the KJV actually come from other English Bible versions of the period, such as the Great Bible and the Bishops' Bible. The KJV did not originate them; it merely kept them and passed them on:
So, truly, the King James Bible popularized the expressions that were already in biblical use. The King James version was appointed to be read in all churches, so "people started not just to quote these expressions, but to play with them — 'What hath Google wrought,' indeed."
This matter of the "perception" versus the "reality" of the cultural influence of the KJV is worth pondering, especially given the rampant mis-perception that the KJV was the first English translation of the Bible, or the first translation at all (or the first Bible, period).

I haven't had a chance to read Crystal's book yet, but I'll post a report up here when I do.

You can listen to the whole conversation here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Article in Christianity Today about the physical forms of Bibles

David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, has penned a brief article about the effects the physical forms of Bibles have on readers:
The physical form of the Bible matters because it influences the way Christians use their sacred book. In the countercultural 1960s, for example, publishers shucked the black leather uniform in favor of more contemporary dress. The aim was to reach those who might not otherwise pick up the Scriptures. The American Bible Society's Good News for Modern Man resembled a mass market paperback, and Tyndale House's Reach Out: The Living New Testament looked just plain "groovy."
While it is an informative article about some of the little-known facts of the history of Bible publishing and use -- for example, you might not have known that it was in 1791 that Isaiah Thomas published the first American Bible to contain genealogical pages -- the piece actually has very little to say about what it promises in its title: the effects of physical Bible forms on reading.

What an article like this shows is exactly the importance of work like what is going on with the Iconic Books project and here at Material Scripture. We need a language and a means of analysis that actually can track these effects of physical form when we notice them. Hopefully this article at Christianity Today is not just a flash in the pan, and Neff and others will begin to take an ongoing interest in these questions (and their answers)!

(Thanks to Allyn Harris Dault for sending me the CT article)

Adventures in Letterpress, part 1

Last December I had a chance to visit briefly with Kyle Durrie, proprietrix of Portland's Power and Light Press, who is currently on a multi-month adventure, traveling from city to city and state to state in a tricked-out delivery truck that houses two medium-weight letterpresses. Durrie was visiting Memphis, and the graphic arts professor here at CBU arranged for her to come to campus and talk and give a demonstration of the truck and the project.

The project, dubbed "Moveable Type," is the realization of a vision Durrie had while visiting her musician boyfriend on the road during a cross-country tour. "Two of my favorite things in the world are printing and road trips," Durrie says. "I wanted to figure out a way to do both things at the same time." She then set a plan in motion to get the project off the ground:
The plan was hatched last year while on a cross country band tour, studying maps and staring out car windows and exploring new towns. It was furthered along by listening to lots of songs about cowboys and truckers. In November 2010, I launched a fundraising campaign through, which was met with surprising and overwhelming support and success. I more than doubled my original financial goal, which turned out to be a good thing, because it turns out I had a very poor understanding of the costs involved in pulling something like this off.
Durrie's success with Kickstarter allowed her to buy and retrofit a 1982 Chevy step van into a fully functional letterpress print shop. "I’ve outfitted the back of the truck with built-in cabinets and workspace, a sign press from the mid 20th century, and an 1873 Golding Official No. 3 tabletop platen press," Durrie writes on her website.

The result is a compact, functional, and very beautiful work space. The trip has consisted of Durrie pulling into towns on prearranged visits, parking her van and setting up shop. She invites people into the truck to try their hand at the press, to learn what printing is and what it feels like to make something with your worn hands and effort.

I got a chance to use the sign press, and was amazed. Despite all my research into printing and the publishing of Bibles, I realized I had never thought much about the actual process of printing of physical pages. Just the little time I spent in the Type Truck was eye-opening. Printing has a feel, and a sound, and a smell to it that is unique. I never would have known this if it hadn't been for Durrie and her vision of bringing letterpress to the masses.

You can contribute to Kyle Durrie's continuing travels here, and you can make arrangements for her to visit your town here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New York Times features A.-J. Levine, Jewish Annotated New Testament

I just saw a New York Times article, published back in late November 2011, that features Amy-Jill Levine and focuses on the new Jewish Annotated New Testament:
This volume is thus for anybody interested in a Bible more attuned to Jewish sources. But it is of special interest to Jews who “may believe that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion,” Drs. Levine and Brettler write in their preface. “This volume, edited and written by Jewish scholars, should not raise that suspicion.”
The article balances both commentary about Levine's lifelong interest in New Testament, as well as the current culture of Bible publication, with its preoccupation with "lifestyle" themed editions.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"A Bible with an Appendix": Christophe Plantin's 1573 Polyglot Bible

Over the past couple of weeks my wife and I have been watching the much loved Connections series, put together by James Burke for the BBC in the 1970s and 1990s. The whole series is now available for free online, and I highly recommend it if you haven't seen it. Burke reads historical events thematically, instead of chronologically, leading to some truly fascinating leaps and threads that start one place and, by the end of the program, pull together across cultures and centuries in surprising and very satisfying ways.

The episode we watched last night had this little section about the Belgian printer Christophe Plantin, who is famous for his ambitious work producing a "Polyglot Bible" - eight volumes that incorporated five languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and Syriac), with the last two volumes comprised entirely of grammars, lexicographic aids, charts, lists, and maps. It is an absolutely amazing piece of work, and garnered Plantin much praise (and a little bit of trouble) for his efforts.

Here is the video. Enjoy!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Manifold Disappointments

I just now got around to reading the June 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine, whose cover promised "King James, Revised: History's Best Seller Turns 400." This had been sitting in my pile of things for a while now, and I was glad to have some time over the Christmas break to give it a look.

I should have just left well enough alone. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I think it involved some form of actual historical/literary discussion of, you know, the King James Bible. Whatever I expected, this was not that.

"Harper's Magazine marked the quadricentennial of the King James Bible by inviting some of our finest poets and novelists to select a verse or short passage from the translation and respond to it, with no restrictions on the form of response," says the introductory blurb [p. 33]. The panel of seven contributors consists of Paul Guest, Benjamin Hale, Dan Chiasson, Marilynne Robinson, Charles Baxter, John Banville, and Howard Jacobson.

I tried. I really did. But "no restrictions," in this case, was a recipe for disaster and disappointment. Of the lot, only Robinson's contribution (one page of prose) comes close to a satisfactory engagement. Her piece serves both as a meditation on the peculiar language of the KJV (she reflects on the phrase, "The twinkling of an eye") and how that language is largely the inheritance of the KJV from a handful of other vernacular English versions preceding it. The piece is erudite, informed, and all too brief.

All to brief especially in light of the space taken by the other contributors. Three are poems. The other three (Jackson's "A Mirror Up to Nothing," Banville's "Absalom Dies," and Hale's "Lower than the Angels") are each a tired rendition of Hitchens-esque agnosticism. Hale reminds us that "the one English book more important than the King James Bible" is, of course, Darwin's On the Origin of the Species. Um. Okay. Yawn.

I love Harper's. Given that this was the cover story, and that I usually am so edified by what I find beneath their covers, I was left shaking my head a bit. Is this the best they could muster? To honor what is arguably (ahem) the most important book in English? (Apologies to Messrs. Darwin and Hale.) I honestly expected a lot more, and a lot better, than what they offered.