Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Fonts for the Memories

Slate had a pair of interesting (at least as far as these things go) articles on typeface* geekery today (here and here). The world of reading aesthetics is, not surprisingly, full of prejudice. For those people who can't go five minutes without thrusting endless rows of the things before their watery, myopic eyes, the presentation of words on the page or the screen matters a lot, and preferences worm their way in to the brain to imprint themselves somewhere just below the level of conscious thought.

For reading, I've long been a fan of the Times typeface, or one of its dozen usual variants. I'm not super particular about it or anything, so long as it's something decently seriffed, stately, fully justified, and proportionally spaced, like in all of those half-remembered novels from my childhood--it's what respectable prose writing should look like, way more serious than the urgently penned capitals of my innumerable dogeared comics, or the vast and random array of ironically emphasized styles of MAD magazine. The aspect ratio might change a little in the book printing, the spacing, the boldness, but it was always something tall and gabled, a font bespeaking decency, old money, dignity.

In those unheralded formative years of mine (after Led Zeppelin's peak and before Nirvana's, roughly speaking), sans serif typefaces had a certain unsavory meaning. They connoted a dated gosh-wow sci-fi (read "skiffy") feel, dusty and cobwebbed under the banality of actual post-Cold War modernity. They were the guilty pleasures of my parents' day, almost of my grandparents'. I'm grateful for the article's dissection of Arial as a streamlined, zippy-but-dumb Helvetica. Helvetica is the ubiquitous roadsign typeface, with a couple of curves and tails offering the reminder of the old-school sophisitication that had to be sacrificed in the name of clarity. Arial, by contrast, needs to have a rocketship underneath it. (Not that there's anything wrong with rocketships.)

I suppose this opinion is thanks in part to my young computer experiences, such as they were. I remember those ugly all-caps early computer displays--a string of pidgin English, delivered in a shout, and followed by a block of a cursor blinking inanely at the end. I always peeked at those gray plastic boxes in fascination, but the promise of doing cool shit with one of them tended to dissolve in five boring minutes of effort. If the programming bug ever bit me in those days (or ever), I'd probably be rich now. I wanted to believe, but I didn't have the patience to become an early convert to the digital cult.

Not that I ever got that far from the church though, even if I was a stranger to its deeper mysteries. I learned to type on one of these beasts, bought by my parents out of some sense of obligation to the times. Those Tandys were early advertisers of office utility (and the fact that the Radio Shack brand didn't have an underground network of pirated and swapped games had a lot to do with my parents' purchase). A lie, that. That machine had an evil and primitive word processing program that was already obsolete at the time of purchase. It could produce lower case letters though, and I remember the dot matrix recalcitrantly whirring out a barely legible mixed typeface for my school reports, some Arial bastard with Roman Is. My poor mother attempted to crank out a number of book manuscripts with that turd, perforated wheel guides carefully torn off, sheets separated and then lovingly packaged. (I transcribed one from its hard copy three years ago for her for Christmas, and keep meaning to follow through with the others). Mom never submitted in Courier (which I admit is a lot easier to scan by eye), but then she also never quite got anything published.

Fast forward a little. In college, there was, of course, more writing. As an engineering student, I don't think I imprinted quite as strongly as a liberal arts sort might have, and anyway there wasn't any word-wrangling platform ubiquitous enough at the time to lock in my character aesthetic. (I got my degree in '94, as Bill Gates was still perfecting his stranglehold on office software tools.) There was a huge network of public workstations (unix-based I think), blessedly with laser printers. Sometimes I wrote lab reports on a program called Slate, but usually I just used a generic text editor. If I was running really behind (not uncommon) and didn't have time for the haul across campus, I borrowed my roommate's typewriter. There was email on campus (and it was new!), and I engaged in some other text-based nerd-tivities I'd rather not disclose. None of it used the tired zip of streamlined Swiss letters. They were all stately and decorated at the ends, giving my playtime the illusion of respectability.

A lot of the writers interviewed in the Slate (magazine) article were annoying ("my preference of Courier means I'm better than you"), but I am not without my own pretensions. All of my accepted manuscripts have been for academic publications (not as great as it sounds, but pride baby, gotta have it). My graduate advisor insisted that everything be written in Times font for those because that's what the journals expected. I consider Microsoft's version of Times New Roman to be the graduation point of my writing efforts. I mean, I was (am) a second-rate scientist, but I could totally write circles around that guy.

Maybe it would have ended there, but the internets were coming about at that time too, slamming me with that space-agey Helvetica ripoff all over again. Every online publication seems to use it, and it's grown on me, I admit (I mean, look around). It's tough to read anything for very long on a CRT, and simpler and bolder typefaces help ease the eyestrain immensely. I've gotten somewhat ecumenical in my tastes: different fonts for different haunts. Arial (or similar) for on-line reading or for presenting data, Times for prose, Courier to string up that Damocles sword of the rejection slip. I've never been much of a purist anyway.


*Note to self: remember this site