Thursday, April 21, 2016
A Vanishing Pleasure
I'm talking about book page design and typography. I've been reading some of my favorite mysteries -- James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux mysteries set in Louisiana bayou country, in hardcover editions published by Doubleday. Most were ho-hum in their design. But a few pages into Purple Cane Road I knew I was holding something special. Not only is it one of the best of the Robicheaux series, in which Dave finds out the mother who abandoned him as a child was actually murdered. The other thing that was unusual was that the pages were physically gorgeous, hearkening back to a time when books were precious objects worthy of a craftsman's care and devotion.
The pages were laid out with wide margins, and the lines of crisp text were laid out with generous leading between the lines. My eye flowed easily down the page. Subtle signposts helped lead you through the book without being obtrusive -- chapter numbers were set off in light gray, screened back cursive. The first page of each chapter was set with even wider margins. The first line of each chapter started with a large initial cap, nicely kerned so it didn't look out of place. Chapter sections had their own, smaller initial caps. Taken as a whole, these subtle cues helped orient the reader in the book in a way that's unique to print books.
These days publishers usually don't bother, because most folks do their reading on screens and devices with type set on computers working on autopilot, or the modern equivalent, HTML cascading style sheets. Since the other books didn't look like this at all, I wondered why the publisher bothered. Then I saw a note on the copyright page: "A signed limited edition of this book has been published by B. E. Trice Publishing, New Orleans." I imagine Doubleday arranged to use the same files to print their edition.
They say e-books seem to have reached their peak and that print books are making a comeback. Maybe it's because there's just nothing like being able to page through a well-designed book.