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Book culture: why there are pages and why they must turn: books are not confined to their material instantiations. They are present in oral as well as written cultures. Indeed, they appear to be, for the human species, a cultural universal.


"I think the whole point of a book is the text--the verbal creation of the author. Type, like handwriting, is simply a system of visible signs that still speech into a special form, which waits to be resurrected n the human voice--to be re-created, because no reader will hear a poem exactly the same as another reader or the same as the author wrote it.... It's the way literature conquers time."

--Harry Duncan to Robert Dana

(Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers, 1986)

You can pick up a book but a book can throw you across the room.... Books are kinetic, and like all huge forces, need to be handled with care.... But they do need to be handled.

--Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects (1995)

If a book should throw you across the room, do not blame (or praise) the designer. The only place where a book might harbor that much leverage, strength, and poise is in the invisible realm of what it has to say.

Design can help to clarify what's said. It can wash the window of the page. Design can make a printed book more inviting to touch, which can give the hidden muscle of the text an extra edge. Design can even turn the physical book into a kind of sculptural music--a silent accompaniment for the voice or voices lurking in the words. This might make getting thrown across the room seem a little more like waltzing. But design cannot give the words a power, depth, or subtlety they did not already have.

The designer can, on the other hand, quite easily cause the reader to throw the book across the room--or if the reader is as gentle as they say, to set the book down with a sigh and never return to it again.

It is an old and venerable rule that the typography of books should be transparent, like a window or a wineglass in which the text is held. (1) No printed page or drinking glass is actually invisible, but both can seem to disappear in favor of their contents. Both can also reappear as things in themselves and as mirrors of their surroundings. Individual readers and whole societies can and do see themselves reflected in their printing, whether or not they are conscious of it as such. The design and manufacture of books can tell us as much about a people or a culture as the condition of its grain fields, pasture lands, and gardens, the social climate of its streets, and the architecture of its buildings.

But what is a book? Most of us think of books as physical objects: words and sometimes images written or printed on a thin, flexible surface that has usually been folded, cut, and bound. But if books were merely that, then a telephone directory or mail-order catalog would qualify as much as Don Quixote or the Canterbury Tales. To those who know and love them, books are recognizable, as forests are, and cities, by their structure (branching and rebranching), their complexity (enormous), and their size (big enough to get lost in). A book is usually something we can carry in one hand, yet if it is a real book it is also larger than we are: a city or forest of words that can feed us and swallow us up and transform us. A book is not a catalog or list; it has to make more sense than that. It is not a stack of cordwood but a tree: a branching, leafing, flowering structure, unfolding in the mind, where it can find the space it needs.

In oral cultures, books are indeed invisible--but in every healthy and mature oral culture, books are present. Oral books that occupy no shelf space can and do unfold to epic size in storytellers' voices--and can retain that size, and that complexity, in a thoughtful listener's mind. The voice can be as palpable, and as seemingly transparent, as the printed page.

In cultures possessing fluent scripts, paper, and printing, books have acquired a stable material form. Those quiet, reliable, portable, legible objects are the benchmark incarnation of the book for most of us now, yet we know that, to be real, a book must be more than a physical object. What makes the tangible form of a book rewarding is that it stands for an intangible reality alive in the heart and mind.

The design of books has meaning because it gives visible form to those invisible realities. The book designer is an interpreter, drawing meaning to the surface where its shape can be revealed. That, however, is not all a book designer does. The printed page is a surface where things inside the book and things outside it intersect and interact with one another. The book designer deals with both of these, revealing in the process something about the text that has been written and something about the conditions in which it may be read.

Books exist because we want and need them. Many people want them nearly as much as they want children, and for closely related reasons. Humans, like all mammals, bequeath what they can to their offspring in two forms: natural and cultural, or genetic and nongenetic. Neither is sufficient on its own. Books, whether oral or written, are among the most powerful means we have for transmitting nongenetic heredity. Idolizing them brings with it certain problems. Societies that worship particular books have a worrisome record of aggravated self-righteousness. But worshipping a book is incompatible with genuinely reading it. And books, for all their failings--and their writers' and readers' failings too--seem to be crucial to human culture. Books--not writing or printing, but books in the deeper sense--may be part of our basic identity as a species: as basic as nests to birds.

Most of what we write and print, like most of what we say, has no such grand importance. What makes a book a book, in the fullest sense of the word, is its plausible claim to be a fairly self-contained component of the essential human legacy. We test words for that quality every time we read.

In the middle of Boris Pasternak's great novel, Yuri Zhivago sits in an upcountry library watching Larissa, the woman he loves, as she immerses herself in a book. He thinks to himself, "She reads as if that were not the highest human activity but something very simple, within the powers of a draft animal. As if she were carrying water or peeling potatoes."

Not long afterward, he sees her bringing water from the well and thinks to himself, "It's the other way too: she carries water as if she were reading, lightly, without effort."

Real books encourage that kind of relationship between reading and the rest of life, and it is just that kind of reading--or so it seems to me--that allows us to recognize real books and to make use of them.

Books, I say again, can be oral just as well as they can be written. In oral cultures no one advertises himself as a book designer, but there is almost always ample proof that book design, in its oral way, is going on. In an oral culture, myth-tellers and storytellers make their own designs, thinking out the order and shape of a story, and every episode in it, every time they tell it aloud. If we transcribe stories told under such conditions, we find that these invisible designs are actually embedded in the text and can be brought, like buried treasure, to the typographic surface. (2) Poets, even in literate cultures, tend to compose in a similar way, giving the work a shape that can be heard when it is spoken or seen when written down. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the study of structural patterns and designs embedded in oral texts has come to be called ethnopoetics.

Prose, I think, is originally blind: a voice in the darkness hauled in like fishline and coiled onto the page, with very little implicit design. (3) But prose is the essential genre of writing, the specialty of scribes, and as scribal cultures develop, prose becomes something to see, to admire, to scrutinize. It is annotated and labeled, segmented and rearranged. In other words, it is edited. Some writers, in fact (though by no means all), learn to edit themselves. It is then that, for better or worse, prose opens its eyes and looks in the mirror.

Writers in scribal cultures tend to be accomplished scribes and can give their work a benchmark material form, but when printing takes hold, typography intervenes. Over time, what the reader reads comes to look quite unlike what the writer produces.

With the spread of personal computers in the late 1980s and 1990s, typographers and writers found themselves using similar tools, and their practice began to reconverge. Printing could once again look something like writing, and writing could now look just like printing, good or bad. Any writer who wished to was free to learn the typographer's trade.

Many writers, of course, had no more desire to start designing and setting their books than they had to start building their own houses, growing their own food, and making their own clothes. Others leapt at the chance--though it was a dangerous moment to leap, because typography itself was undergoing tumultuous change. A thousand years of accumulated knowledge and expertise was in danger of being lost or broken in the move. Such upheavals have been frequent in the bookmaking crafts in the past hundred years.

Between 1900 and 1920, books were caught in a major industrial shift from handset to machine-set type. Both Monotype and Linotype machines imposed some new restrictions on the proportions and fitting of letters. New faces, and new adaptations of old ones, were urgently required. Given the sorry state of typography toward the end of the nineteenth century, this could easily have proven a disaster. It did not, because the redesign campaign encountered two rich sources of fertilization: the revival of humanist scribal practice, led by Edward Johnston, and an intensified study of typographic history, led in large part by Daniel Berkeley Updike in the United States and Stanley Morison in England. (4) Many typefaces born in those days are still in steady and fruitful use for making books, in both metal and digital form.

In the 1960s, as commercial printing became photographic, typography was forced to change again. More new faces were designed, and old ones again redrawn. This went less well, especially in North America. Machines and fonts were built with scant regard for the traditions of typography, then marketed as devices that could be operated by anyone able to use a typewriter keyboard. Good typographers did what they could to dodge and deflect this perversion of the craft, but overall, the era of phototype (roughly 1960 to 1985) was, like most of the nineteenth century, a period of prolonged typographic depression. (It was also, and in the same countries, a time of enormous literary productivity: a sobering reminder of how separable typographic art and the art of literature can be.)

Equally traumatic was the rapid shift from case-bound books to paperbacks and from binder's thread to glue. The printed page was abruptly replaced by a photographic replica of itself, and the sewn book--a river of paper and type that opened and flowed at the sweep of a fingertip-was replaced by a paper brick, impeccably trimmed and squared, often colorfully wrapped, but self-destructively predisposed to bite the hand that read it. Books were now much cheaper and more numerous than before, but books had been transformed. They had largely ceased to be the chalices of knowledge--austerely sensuous vessels brimming with what humanity has thought and felt and known--and become disposable containers, filled with any printable substance consumers would buy. Forests disappeared into these disposable books, and the books, read or unread, disappeared into landfills. Yet the throwaway book, in its sorrowful way, was a great success. It was through just such disintegrating paperbacks that many of us first learned how powerful books could be--and how much they deserved to be better designed and more lovingly and durably constructed.

Digital type, when it first appeared (in Germany at the end of the 1960s), had all the faults of phototype and some of its own besides. Its only benefit was speed. A much more promising approach to digital rendering was developed in the United States in the mid-1980s, and by the end of that decade it was possible to set digital type with all the subtlety of the finest work in metal. This is what made it possible for the two faces of literature--writing and typography--to reconverge.

In much of the world, this convergence of writing and printing is not in fact a reunion but a meeting of things that have scarcely intersected in the past. Straight off the shell almost any new laptop can now set type in hundreds of languages--African, Asian, Austronesian, Native American, and even European--in which the literary tradition has scarcely been touched by earlier methods of typefounding and printing. But typographic tradition is also much more varied than modern readers often suppose, and the computer's digital capabilities rest on that mechanical and material foundation. The typographic history of the sixty-odd native Canadian languages is full of instructive examples.

Printing came early to the New World, reaching Mexico in 1539 and Massachusetts a century later, but there was no press in Canada until 1752, and no foundry casting type until 1830. Canada, however, is the one country in the Americas where type design was confined to indigenous scripts for more than a hundred years before working its way back to the Latin letters that European colonists had brought into the country long before.

James Evans--an English-born immigrant-turned-missionary--inaugurated Canadian type design by developing an indigenous syllabic script for two closely related Algonquian languages, Ojibwa and Cree. Evans had the script worked out by 1839, and in 1841 he cut and cast some type at his mission in central Manitoba. After his early death, in 1846, new fonts were professionally cut, both in London and in Montreal. By 1862 a complete Cree Bible had been printed in syllabics for the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Other missionaries adapted Evans's system to Inuktitut, to Blackfoot, and to several northern Athapaskan languages, including Gwichin, Slavey, and Chipewyan. Athapaskan languages have a more elaborate array of consonants and vowels than Algonquian languages and cannot be unambiguously written without a larger set of symbols. Modified versions of Latin script (like the orthography now routinely used for Navajo) actually work very well for this purpose, but in nineteenth-century Canada the idea of a new and indigenous script appealed to many missionaries and native speakers alike.

The most fully developed of all Canadian syllabic scripts was created in 1885 by an Oblate missionary, Adrien-Gabriel Morice (1859-1938), for the Athapaskan language Dakelh, spoken in northern British Columbia. Morice's system comes much closer than the others to full and accurate representation of all the vowels and consonants involved. It also demonstrates, as few of the world's writing systems do, a subtle understanding of relations among the different sounds. A font of Morice's Dakelh syllabics includes two hundred characters, where Evans's fully developed Cree syllabic script has ninety--but both systems still unfold from just nine basic shapes.

All these syllabic systems suffered from neglect between the 1930s and the 1990s, but even during these hard years, syllabic literacy survived in Inuktitut and Cree. At the end of the twentieth century, when the scripts were revived in digital form (and given official status in the international encoding standard known as Unicode), most of them lacked any constituency other than ethnolinguists and antiquarian enthusiasts. Inuktitut and Cree, however, had and still have tens of thousands of fluent speakers, and to many of these speakers, syllabic script has remained an important practical tool as well as a mark of cultural identity. Novels, poems, autobiographies, and film scripts (as well as reference works, popular magazines, and reams of government documents) have been written and printed in Inuktitut syllabics in the past half century] I am not aware of any novels written in Cree, but Cree syllabics have been used to write and publish theater scripts and poems, and to transcribe and publish a large body of oral narrative literature, as well as for newspapers, schoolbooks, government bulletins, and other nonliterary publications. Syllabic script is also the form in which most Inuktitut- and Cree-speaking Christians read their Bible.

The creation of Nunavut as a separate Canadian territory in 1999 did much to fuel the survival of Inuktitut syllabics. Governments breed bureaucrats, and bureaucrats need writing. Inuktitut is the dominant language of Nunavut, and syllabics are the script that Inuktitut speakers in Nunavut have generally preferred since it was first introduced, by yet another fervent missionary, Edmund Peck, in 1877. (In the western Arctic, by contrast, syllabic script has never been popular and is not in current use.)

William Ross Mills, a young Vancouver type designer interested in Native American scripts, was commissioned by the fledgling Nunavut government to produce several new syllabic fonts with standardized encoding, and to build keyboard drivers to go with them. Existing fonts were also upgraded by other designers to comply with the Unicode standard. This forced a number of typists (and, incidentally, a number of scholars) to learn new tricks and habits, but it also made Inuktitut e-mail and electronic document exchange far more reliable and practical than they had ever been before. A few years later, Mills produced a more ambitious font, known as Euphemia, that includes the entire range of Canadian syllabics (over six hundred characters, serving at least ten languages in three different language families). That font is now standard equipment on both Windows and Macintosh machines. The social presumptions and global hegemony implied may give one pause. But for better or worse, anyone competent to communicate in Inuktitut can now walk into almost any Internet cafe, in almost any part of the world, or sit down at almost any borrowed computer, invoke the required keyboard, and start typing. The result may be typographically inept; in fact it may be downright ugly, as most things typed on computers now are--and it may or may not have literary value. Typographic taste, after all, is at least as rare as literary taste, and the conjunction of the two is rarer still. But as pure linguistic code, a text typed in this way in Inuktitut will be as reliable, preservable, and transmissible as the author's writing skills allow.

Does this make printed books obsolete? It does nothing of the kind--not in English, French, or Russian, and not in Inuktitut or Cree. Books are not in competition with the computer any more than they are with the typewriter or with the pen.

The physical form of the codex has now been with us for two thousand years. It has been used as a container for many things, including calendars and almanacs, business ledgers, fashion magazines, catalogs of garden seeds and auto parts, lists of names and telephone numbers, and editions of the Index librorum prohibitorum. There is no reason other than convenience, or maybe lack of imagination, why such nonbooks and antibooks should ever have appeared in bookish guise. Now we have entered a phase in which not only a lot of nonbooks but also some real books--or things that should be books--are dressed instead as data files and websites. Clearly this has a downside as well as an upside, but I think it is highly unlikely to mean the death of civilization. One of the things that does disturb me, however, is the sight of librarians, students, teachers, and academic administrators leaping onto the bandwagon, assuming that all knowledge is going to fit, and even to flourish, in a single kind of container and that the newest sort of container must be the best.


In Cree, Inuktitut, Haida, and other Native American languages, the golden age of oral literature has passed. It is impolitic to say so, but the truth is that the oral books have shriveled, crumbled, or vanished, and nothing has replaced them. Nothing can. A lot of oral literature, including some genuine masterpieces, has been handsomely transcribed, but these transcriptions play a different role and serve a different audience than the oral books that preceded them. If the custodians of manuscripts and printed books allow those treasures to disappear, nothing will replace them either. Nothing else will do, for us as a species, what oral books, or manuscripts and printed books, have done.

Electronic books are still in their infancy. They come now in a number of different forms, nearly all of which turn out to be crude and slippery digital imitations of the printed book. None of these, in my opinion, has much future. I suspect that electronic books, when they mature, will prove just as different from manuscript and printed books as printed books are from oral books.

The forms in which books have thrived--oral poetry, the manuscript, letterpress, and the lithographic illustrated book--have a satisfying sensuous dimension. This is something electronic books still lack, and it is crucial to making literature real in the lives of creatures like ourselves, whose minds are made in part of flesh and blood.

Electronic texts have the advantage of easy searchability, but searching a text is quite different from reading it--and there is no sign that reading texts on screen will ever be as invigorating and restful as reading good letterpress. Electronic texts can also be laden with hyperlinks, but there is nothing inherently sensuous in these; moreover, hyperlinks always lead elsewhere and so interrupt the essentially riverine business of reading. But electronic texts can also be threaded with sound files, making it possible, for example, to publish editions of Cree or Inuktitut texts with facing translation in which the original text can be heard as well as read. This supplements reading instead of pulling it apart.

The reason most typographers, most of the time, try to make their pages transparent is that printing, most of the time, is understood as part of the tissue of metaphor by which we know, or try to know, the world. The letter, to the typographer as to the writer, is not an end in itself. Letters, like violins and violinists, may be lovely in themselves, but where they really shine is in giving what they are to something larger than themselves: to literature, to music, and to everything that literature and music are about. This is done through a tiny orifice: the needle's eye, the letterform, the note.

Words, like the camera, leave many things out. And our methods of putting words on the page leave out many things that we tend to put in when we speak. Reading is always an imaginative act: a filling in of hints, a conversation of a kind. Books, in their silent way, have to listen, not just talk. If a text can tell us something, and if we can read the text, then any legible version will do. But a book that can throw you across the room is a book to be treated with some respect. And a book that has something of lasting value to say--as real books do by definition--is a book to be read more than once and kept for as long as there might be others to read it.

A musician will say that her instrument speaks, that it has a voice. We say the same of a writer's hand and of the letterforms that a master typecutter cuts. We do not say it of a typewriter, a printing press, a computer, or of any other machine. They may clatter and hum, but they do not speak. A violin can speak because it can listen, because it has ears as well as a voice. A letterform listens too, in the moment in which it is made. When it is replicated and printed, it listens no more. But the book in which that letterform is printed does have to go on listening in order to be read. That is why the book has to open, and why the pages have to flow, like a river in dappled light: like the voice of a world where things are still growing, where creatures still live.

Heriot Bay, British Columbia

(1) The classic statement of this view is an essay by Beatrice Warde, "The Crystal Goblet," which began life as a lecture given in London in October 1930 under the title "Printing Should Be Invisible." The most conveniently available published version is included in Beatrice Warde, The Crystal Goblet: Sixteen Essays on Typography, ed. Henry Jacob (London: Sylvan Press, 1955).

(2) The pioneer in this field of typographic archaeology is an ethnographic linguist named Dell Hymes. The topic--dear to my heart--is explored at greater length in a piece called "Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America," in my book The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008), 206-56.

(3) This is not the place to argue the merits and scope of this opinion, but it is based on close study of hundreds of manuscripts, ancient and recent, in languages ranging from Latin and Greek to Inuktitut and Cree.

(4) In the fields where they made their mark, Johnston, Updike, and Morison were all entirely self-taught. Johnston, who was born in Uruguay to Scottish parents, began to teach scribal practice at the Central School of Arts & Crafts, London, in 1899. His manual, with its oddly but deliberately punctuated title, Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering, was published in 1906 and has never since been out of print. Between 1911 and 1916, Updike gave the first college courses on typography ever offered in North America. These were at Harvard--not in Fine Arts but in the Graduate School of Business Administration. His major work, Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use, first appeared in 1922. It is the second edition (2 vols., Harvard University Press, 1937) that most of us now use. The most important of Morison's books, in my opinion, is the posthumous Politics and Script: Aspects of Authority and Freedom in the Development of Graeco-Latin Script from the Sixth Century B.C. to the Twelfth Century A.D. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972). Morison also founded and edited a valuable journal called The Fleuron (1923-30) and from 1923 directed the Monotype Corporation's program of typeface revivals.

(5) John Ayaruaq's autobiography, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Unipkaga inusiminik] (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1968), was the first single-authored book written and published in Inuktitut. I believe the first novel written in Inuktitut was Markoosie's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Umayusiuti unatuinamu], which was serialized during 1969 and 1970 in the journal [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Inutitut].

Editorial note: Adapted from Robert Bringhurst, The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada, to be published in fall 2008 by CCSP Press (the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing Press) at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.
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Author:Bringhurst, Robert
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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