Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation

The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic InnovationThe Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation by Michael Lommen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I would have been a librarian in another life. A little tweak in the timestream wherein I felt the strength of my interests a bit earlier, while I could still afford a switch in my education (or while I was still ignorant of the fiscal consequences) would have nudged me in an entirely different direction. Alas, it’s a bit too late to change all that. Yes, I’ve volunteered at libraries and participated in a couple of “friends of XYZ library” groups, and I’ll likely put in significantly more time once the kids are all grown up and out of the house, but as far as vocation goes, it’s probably too late (unless some generous donor wants to pay off my student loans and pay for me to go back to school).

That doesn’t, of course, preclude me from loving books. And I do. I love the feel of books, the heft, the smell, the sound of pages scraping against each other. Not that I have anything against e-books, obviously. But there’s something enchanting about the artifact itself. This is especially true of old books – not the moldy National Geographics in your grandmother’s basement, but really old, solid books. Maybe this is part of the reason I love Tartarus Press so much – they’re like old books, but they’re new. Strange. But I digress.

If I could go back in time and rearrange the timing of my interests in relation to my available cash, I would study Archival Science and Preservation. That’s one thing I miss the most about not having access to a university library – I don’t get to just hang around those musty old volumes and browse the stacks (while I should have been studying). Other friends partied, hung out at the pizza place, exercised . . . I wandered the labyrinth of books.

The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation, therefore, makes me drool. Not because of the commentary, which is pedestrian (though the parts about the dissemination of type throughout Europe were interesting), but because of the plates therein, especially those facsimiles of really old books.

Mathieu Lommen is careful to point out that, throughout the book, “Special attention is devoted to printers' manuals, illuminating the printing process, and also to type specimens and writing masters' copybooks, placing letterforms in a broader context”. In other words, this is really a book about book printing and the design and evolution of fonts, not about the books themselves. In fact, he points out that “Although the particular copy illustrated may have an interesting or even an important history of its own – its provenance, binding or manuscript annotations – that is not discussed here.” And, again, the style in which the commentary is written is fairly dry and academic. But the presentation of the graphics in chronological order effectively exhibits the love and care with which the old books (and some newer books) were created.

For example, Die Geuerlichkeiten und eins teils der geschichten des loblichen streitbaren und hochber├╝mbten helds und Ritters Tewrdannckhs, commissioned by Emperor Maximilian I, took over five years to produce. The type is beautiful, a gothic font with flourishing “whip-tails” coming off of some of the letters, giving the whole a touch of antiquated elegance that compliments the detailed D├╝rer-esque illustrations that show various events surrounding a knight (presumably a stand-in for Maximilian himself).

But, as beautiful as Maximilian's book is, if I had to pick a calligrapher to hand-write my own books, I would pick Ludovico degli Arrighi, also known as Vicentino, because he was born near Vicenza. The work illustrated here is Arrighi's La operina di Ludovico Vicentino de imparare di scrivere littera cancellarescha (you can download your own free copy of the original manuscript here). His chancery italic font combines the best of gothic script with the swooping loops of what came to be, 400 years later, Art Nouveau. While the arabesques here are more restrained than in the German work, there is a certain playfulness to the capital letters, an almost carefree whimsy that evokes the romanticized ideal of the Latin temperament, hardly able to control itself, yet holding its chin up high. I, for one, am in love with Arrighi's writing. Or maybe I just have a bad case of Penmanship Envy.

Now, while I’m not likely to be a professional librarian in this life, and it may be some time before I can access the local university’s libraries (I’m hoping they’ll take pity on a crazy old man after I retire), through Lommen’s book, I can have a taste of what was and what is to come. In the meantime, it will tide me over until I can get my manuscript-corrupting fingerprints back on the real deal.

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