Nonappreciation of Good Book Design

In a recent short review in The New Yorker, an anonymous critic concluded his remarks with this statement: “It is also an extremely handsome book—well made, well designed, and beautifully illustrated. . . .”

To those typographers who have for so long labored in unacknowledged obscurity, the New Yorker critic might be the harbinger of a new order except for the obvious fact that he is but the exception that proves the rule. And the role, of course, is that the physical appearance of a book is simply of no concern to book reviewers.

The critic is understandably concerned with the subject matter of a book, but all too frequently he is insensitive to those properties which contribute to its acceptance as a work of art in its own right. Fortunately this has not always been the case, or many a bibliophile would have collected in vain.

However, it must be admitted that to collectors the lure of the first edition seems to have been stronger then the attraction of fine typography.

All of the great historic printers gained their reputations from their contributions to the book arts. It was only with the advent of the Industrial Revolution when mass production procedures were adopted in bookmaking that the printer became the nameless member of the trio responsible for the production of a book—author, publisher, printer.

It is perhaps no accident that those printers who now specialize in the printing of books are called book manufacturers.

If a book is, as Frederic Warde once stated, and interpretation of a text, we need to bring to its design the best that can be offered. This cannot be accomplished if the designer is to be the silent partner in its production. First-rate art can scarcely be promoted in a state of anonymity.

Oddly enough, even when a temporary book is published without giving credit to its designer, the dust jacket—added only as a temporary protection until the volume reaches the library shelf—invariably contains the name of the artist who prepared it.

While the majority of publishers do not name the designers, several firms do feel strongly enough about good bookmaking to do so. The American publisher who has done the most over the past half-century to promote excellence in trade books is Alfred A. Knopf. He not only provides for the reader the name of the designer, but adds that of the printer and supplies a short history of the type used in the book.

This estimable practice demonstrates a considerable pride in his product on the part of Mr. Knopf, and cannot fail to have an effect on the attitude of the general reader for the appearance of the books he reads. Whether or not it prompts critics to look beyond the substance of a text remains problematical.

The Knopf authors, by and large, are all happy with the approach to format expressed by their publisher. First things first writers, naturally enough, but it has never been proved whether good design ever hurt royalty payments.

George Bernard Shaw is representative of the author who was very much aware of the need of good printing. In fact Shaw spent so much time planning format that both his publisher and his printer became very much annoyed with him.

However, the playwright felt so strongly about the matter that he once wrote: “Well printed books are just as scarce as well written ones; and every author should remember that most costly books derive their value from the craft of the printer and not from the author’s genius.”

In a calling as literate as that of book publishing, it is a constant surprise to be confronted by the apathy of so many book reviewers and booksellers to well-planned books. Perhaps a “cult” designer is needed to raise the status of the book arts to what it was when Bruce Rogers, William Addison Dwiggins, and Daniel Berkeley Updike dominated the field.

The contributions of such printer-designers, along with the impact of the Fifty Books of the Year Exhibition sponsored by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, have helped to bring a high level of competency to the production of the average book. Unfortunately the general reader has not been made aware of the improvement, although he has benefitted immeasurably.

Further advances in good bookmaking will undoubtedly await a more enlightened attitude toward the importance of design on the part of the book industry itself. Certainly making the role of the designer more attractive will be a step in that direction.

This doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in production costs, as artists often look beyond the cash register. Bill Dwiggins wrote of the artist that he “is an anomaly in the present civilization because he is moved by a craving outside the universal and rational craving to make money.”

There is no need to return to the private press philosophy of art and craft and bookmaking, although this has real value in its own place. There’ll always be book collectors with steam fine printing above literate content.

How far this viewpoint can go is illustrated by the story of the binder answering the complaint of his patron about a volume did not close properly. “Why bless you, sir,” he exclaimed, “you’ve been reading it!”

Obviously we can never accept the dilettante’s approach to modern book production, but neither can we close our eyes to some of the precepts of fine printing.

The more pragmatic approach was ideally expressed by that practical typographer, Will Ransom, who wrote, “Poor printing cannot harm great literature; and elaborate, expensive, limited edition cannot convert doggerel into epic poetry; but sensible, sensitive typography can enhance the reader’s appreciation of a good book.”

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the June 1968 issue of Printing Impressions.


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