Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Excuse me, you have something on your face. Plus Typesetting.

I spent several hours this evening completely oblivious to the fact that I had a blue Hitler mo' plastered across my upper lip, and no one thought to tell me. I left work at five in pristine (if damp--thank you Melbourne) condition, bought dinner, bought a mars bar (both from real people, not vending machines) received a sidelong glance from some man as I applied my lipstick with no mirror (I thought he was checking me out--turns out he wasn't) turned up at the Afghanistan 2009 Forum like a good little publicist with my box of books to sell and greeted the organiser. Then I set up my little table, and just before people started to arrive I nipped to the loos. And there it was. This was not a faint mark. It was full-on Groucho. I looked like a shoddy drag-king who'd just stumbled out of the Greyhound Hotel next door between rounds of gender-bending bingo. Crushing.

What made it worse was no one though to tell me I had ink all over my face. (Goodness knows how it got there. I blame the rain and cheap fabric dye.) I would tell someone that if they bought a mars bar from me. Wouldn't you? Even if they were a total stranger??

Today's post was meant to be a whimsical exploration of my thoughts on typesetting, to coincide with the State Library of Victoria's The Independent Type exhibition (24 April--25 October). I'm rather shattered, but let's press on.

I love short books. Think Metamorphosis, and On Chesil Beach. They're absolute jewels that barely run to 200 pages. I can just picture Ian McEwen slavishly shaving adjective after adverb off his sentences, long into the night, until he is left with the sparsest, most beautiful prose.

If you pick up a short book and open it, it's almost as if the letters are breathing a sigh of relief. They're taking their time, sauntering from left to right across the page without a care in the world. New chapters get their own page breaks and start low on the page. Line breaks are filled with sumptuous curlicues. There's no need to crack the spine to read the innermost sentences--margins have been set deep.

The reason you don't see such expansive typesetting on longer books is because of a bah-humbug known as the Production Manager. He or she is the one who keeps everyone in a publishing house on budget. "No you may not have embossing and a spot varnish on that cover! 70 gsm bulky will do for the paperstock! Go ask the author to cut 50,000 words out of their masterpiece, every word costs money!"

I picked up a mass-market paperback the other day and could see right through the paper, making it impossible to read. A similar abomination was all four of the Ursula Le Guin Earthsea books squeezed into one paperback with a one-inch-thick spine. I needed a magnifying glass to see "Chapter One".

To me, books are things of beauty, which is why I can't abide these Kindle things, at least not for the trade. Scientific papers, textbooks, maybe. But a book that exists purely for pleasure? It deserves some pampering, a measure of uniqueness. And above all, a generous typesetter.

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