Sue's Reviews > Just My Type: A Book About Fonts

Just My Type by Simon Garfield
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's review
Jan 17, 2012

it was amazing
Read in November, 2011

Many of the books I “read” are in fact audiobooks, and I am a big fan of a good book read by a good reader. Well, here’s a book I cannot imagine choosing as an audio book. You really need to see the typefaces as you read about their histories, their uses, and their creators.

What does your favorite font say about you? There are many of us for whom that is not a silly question. This cleverly imagined and researched book is for us.

I bought my first Macintosh in 1984, and I was amazed to discover that I could produce my own pixelated documents in my choice of about ten different fonts. I was teaching at the time, and I chose one font which would produce the most readable exams. And a dfferent font for the most creative Christmas letters. Not long after, I began working for a concert series and was charged with producing concert programs (elegance preferred) and simple flyers (grab their attention!).

Maybe I am not so unique in these simple experiences, and “Just My Type” finds the myriad of ways that we relate to letters. Computer owners everywhere have the option of expressing themselves in the way their documents looks. Not so in the age of the typewriter, when we just did as we were told – by Smith Corona or IBM.

But long before the average consumer could make the design choices to proclaim “I am elegant,” “I am fun,” or “I am sophisticated,” there were special artists who romanced the letters that designed the books – or possibly sold the candidates.

The first typeface can be said to have been created 560 years ago by Gutenberg. The artisans who created Gutenberg’s Bibles no longer were forming the letters themselves.

Now there are thousands of fonts, and they surround us. Simon Garfield produces stories of Gutenberg and his legions of successors. If the font of a book is not noticeable and we read the text with ease, scarcely noticing anything but the meaning, the font is doing its job. But fonts are also chosen to convey a mood, an idea, an attitude, and this book is filled with stories of those choices. Corporations want to appear reliable, a movie wants to seem romantic, a DVD cover wants to look radical. The font is chosen with that in mind.

There’s plenty of history here, especially in recent years, once Monotype and Linotype made possible a proliferation of letter styles. Garfield is especially intrigued by the artists who are so devoted to the art of letters; they rarely get rich but they love their craft. Certain of their creations were used so much they seemed to signal a shift in the popular taste. One, Helvetica, was the subject of a movie. Others, like Edward Johnston’s typeface for the London Underground, become so identified with a usage that it dare not change.

My favorite sections were called “Font Breaks,” brief chapters highlighting specific fonts. Some were dramatic: Thomas Cobden-Sanderson owned the metal letters which had produced the beautiful Doves Bible. He was fearful that they would be misused after his death, and he threw the metal letters into the Thames – a difficult feat which involved more than 100 trips to the river at times when he would not be noticed.

Other stories were nationalistic. The beautiful and elegant Vendome font is seen as utterly suited to the French, who have overused it as much as Helvetica. And the sharply cut Albertus guides you around the City of London.

Still more stories relate to the development of fonts by such digital powerhouses as Microsoft, which determines that the world’s most common font today is Calibri, the default for Word, Excel, and Power Point.

A really fun book.

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