A thoroughly entertaining, well-informed tour of typefaces, some now 560 years old, some invented within just the last few years.
If you own a computer, chances are good that you have hundreds of fonts available on your machine. Unless you’re a typophile, then the chances are equally good that you don’t make full use of all those possibilities—or know why Minion is different from Garamond is different from Times New Roman. Enter Garfield, a genial Briton who confesses to “a soft spot for Requiem Fine Roman and HT Gelateria.” Some fonts, by the author’s account, are dear and necessary—the late-Renaissance inventions of Claude Garamond, for instance, which, adapted by the English compositor William Caslon, “would provide the letters for the American Declaration of Independence,” or Sabon, “one of the most readable of all book fonts.” Others are an offense to the eye, such as Comic Sans, which started life innocently enough but has been used so overly and wrongly as to constitute a typographic felony. (Garfield defends the font’s designer, though, who also designed Trebuchet, “which is a nicely rounded semi-formal humanist font ideal for web design.” The author traces the evolution of font families over the several technologies of typemaking and typesetting that have emerged in the last half-millennium, including some of the digital ones that are used today. He is just old enough, too, to pay homage to typography in quite another context, namely the “boastful B” and “dropped T” spelling out “The Beatles” on Ringo Starr’s drum kit. He also offers pointers on what fonts work best for what uses, even if some of his profiles should remain lost forever: The world would be a better place without Souvenir Light and Cooper Black.
“When we choose a typeface,” asks Garfield, “what are we really saying?” His book offers an informed and pleasing answer, and a lively companion to books such as Robert Bringhurst’s essential Elements of Typographic Style (1992) and John Lewis’s classic Typography: Design and Practice.