The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

Modern Books Part 7

The eye is so much occupied in deciphering the words of the print that the mind is not at full liberty to grasp the meaning the words are intended to convey. A book is much pleasanter to read if the words are sufficiently distinct not to require a sustained effort to disentangle them, and if the lines do not crowd upon each other but are clearly enough defined to be followed with ease. The spacing should correspond in some degree to the natural intervals observed in reading aloud. Good spacing, like good punctuation, is an aid to ready comprehension of the subject matter, and may be likened to phrasing in music.

Certain established features of the printed book, such as title page, head-lines, and pagination, which were adopted in the course of its development, were doubtless the outcome of considerations of convenience. The printers of some modern examples of fine printing, besides reverting to fifteenth-century models for their type, have also ignored these aids to the ready use of a book. Instead of a title page telling us frankly the name and author of the book and when and where printed, we are fobbed off with a brief title placed in bare isolation at the top of a page; the other credentials are hidden away at the end of the volume, and not infrequently have to be painfully spelled out from a maze of capitals. In these books head-lines are generally omitted, giving a decollated aspect to the page, suggestive of the binder's guillotine. Shoulder notes sometimes take the place of head-lines, though why these excrescences should be deemed preferable it is difficult to see. With the head-lines gone, the pagination is relegated to the foot of the page, a singularly inconvenient position.

Another affectation which shews signs of creeping in is that of omitting to indent the first line of a paragraph. This renders the beginning of the paragraph indistinguishable from any other line, and if the end of the preceding paragraph should happen to occupy the full extent of its line there is nothing to indicate the break. A craving for doing something different and a certain amount of preciosity may have prompted some of these deviations from what has been found by experience to be generally convenient. But it is much easier to criticize than to attain perfection and the best work done in recent years both at private presses and by the leading business printing houses is worthy to be placed beside the best work of the fifteenth century, and there is little else in the interval to rank with them.