I recently wrote a piece for the New York Times on the kerfuffle currently engulfing the humble circumflex accent (ê). You can read the piece here — let me know what you think about it in the comments or, if you’d prefer, drop me a line via the Contact page. (Many thanks to Jessica Svendsen for the use of the image that accompanies the article!)
Ladies and gentlemen: The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time is now available for pre-order! You can order the hardcover in the USA from W. W. Norton, Amazon.com, Indiebound or Powell’s. In the rest of the world, order from Amazon.co.uk, The Book Depository or Waterstones. It will be published in August.
It’s been quite a journey since starting on this second book, and I think that the book itself reflects that: it begins with the clay tablets of the ancient Mesopotamians, takes in the papyrus scroll, the parchment book, paper, printing of all kinds, the Industrial Revolution, photography, lithography and computers, and finishes with the book in your hands. The book (and The Book!) is a product, essentially, of the whole of human history.
Brendan Curry, my editor at Norton, got the band back together again: Judith Abbate provided the sumptuous design (of which more in a future post), which was then expertly typeset by Brad Walrod and copyedited by the eagle-eyed Rachelle Mandik. This is not to forget my agent, Laurie Abkemeier, who was, as always, a great supporter throughout the process. Nor my wife, the long-suffering Dr Leigh Stork, who by now almost certainly knows more than I do about book history.
In lieu of interior shots, for now the typographers and typophiles out there might be interested to know that The Book is set in Adobe Jenson Pro Light, designed by Robert Slimbach between 1995 and 2000 in emulation of type cut in the fifteenth century by the French printer Nicolas Jenson.* Judith has carried over the black-and-red theme from Shady Characters, albeit with the addition of some suitably Venetian printer’s ornaments, and readers of the first book will feel right at home.
I’ll be posting more about The Book in the coming months, but if this has whetted your appetite even a little, why not head over to the retailer of your choice and reserve your copy today?
As you may have noticed, things are a little different around here. Shady Characters is a little over five years old now, and the original design was starting to fray around the edges: it was not especially readable on mobile devices; PC and Mac users were presented with different fonts; and the underlying code had grown a little stale, leading to ugly citations and unpredictably-sized images.
This new design is my response to all that. Here’s what it entails.
Firstly, all users will now see text set in Sindre Bremnes’ excellent Satyr, with headings set in its “unfaithful companion” Faunus.* Sindre is one of the principals of Norwegian type design studio Monokrom (along with Frode Bo Helland, who helped me greatly in sorting out the minutiae of webfont usage), and he writes of Satyr:1
Curves are hard. Even harder, I think, is making curves and straight lines work well together. And hardest of all is making the transition from line to curve look good. So one day, after a long period of trying to draw type with as few curves as possible, John Downer-style,2 I tried to go the other way, eliminating not the curve but the line. […] But there’s more to Satyr than the lack of straight lines. Although the proportions are vaguely Venetian and the contrast obviously renaissance-influenced, the typeface still can’t be put in any of these coarse categories. The ‘e’ and the ‘a’, most typically, show reversed contrast — the vertical thins seem to change their mind halfway.
In other words, zoom in for a good look! Satyr in particular rewards close examination; Faunus, being designed for larger type, wears its heart on its sleeve.
Aside from the new typefaces, I’ve tweaked the overall design with a view to making things a little more cohesive. The site now scales smoothly from smartphone screens to desktop monitors: font sizes are chosen responsively, images resize and reposition themselves accordingly, and a few other elements rearrange themselves to suit the current screen size. The presentation of references to web pages, newspaper articles, and other problematic article types has been tidied up.
Lastly, I’ve introduced some keyboard shortcuts to make it easier to get around the site. Press ‘j’ to view the next post or ‘k’ to view the previous one. (On list pages, such as the home page, ‘j’ will take you to newer posts and ‘k’ to older posts.) ‘h’ will take you to the home page, ‘/’ to the search box, and ‘c’ to the comments, if available. Try it out, and let me know what you think!
So: here it is, the new version of Shady Characters! There are some other changes under the hood,† and not everything will work perfectly at first, of course, but I hope that this is a decent starting point. I encourage you to have a nose around the site to ferret out any visual or functional bugs. Please leave a comment here with your impressions, whether good, bad or indifferent, or drop me a line privately via the Contact page.
Here’s to the next five years!
- Nina Stössinger assisted with spacing and kerning. ↩︎
- Shady Characters continues to be powered by WordPress, but the new theme is derived from Automattic’s Underscores starter theme and, for the first time, I’ve automated the creation of the final stylesheet with Sass, Grunt and postcss. None of this should matter to you, the reader, except that it will make maintaining the site a little easier in future. ↩︎
But first: interrobangs. This is shaping up to be a banner year for Martin K. Speckter’s creation. Having been selected by Pearson, the giant publishing firm, to form the nucleus of its new logo, the interrobang now pops up at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft as the title of an upcoming exhibition of letterpress printing.
Oddly, the interrobang itself is nowhere to be seen on Ditchling Museum’s website (‽), but I can just about forgive their omission because of the pleasing conjunction that this all represents. The interrobang was the subject of the second chapter of Shady Characters book, but what was the subject of the first? It was the pilcrow (¶), of course, the preferred shady character of Ditchling’s most famous resident: the late Eric Gill, typographer, sculptor and posthumous scandal-merchant, who lived in the village for more than a decade.1
I’ve contacted Ditchling Museum to ask why they chose the interrobang to represent their exhibition, and whether they were aware of Eric Gill’s fondness for unconventional marks of punctuation (and, let’s face it, his fondness for unconventional everything else, too), but they have yet to reply. You’ll be the first to know.
Elsewhere, Gunther Schmidt of lexikaliker.de wrote to tell me about a recent article on Maria Popova’s reliably thought-provoking website Brainpickings in which Maria discusses a rather striking book of poetry. In the Land of Punctuation (originally Im Reich der Interpunktionen) was written in 1905 by the German poet Christian Morgenstern as a satirical trip through an imagined realm of punctuation, but this new edition has been translated into English by Sirish Rao and illustrated — spectacularly — by Rathna Ramanathan.
Maria elaborates on the book’s origins:
Morgenstern, a sort of German Lewis Carroll who crafted literary nonsense with an aphoristic quality and a touch of wry wisdom, was in his early thirties when he wrote the poem — a jocular parable of how dividing a common lot into warring subgroups produces only devastation and no winners. That he died mere months before the start of WWI only lends the piece an eerie air of prescient poignancy.
Accompanying all this are Ramanathan’s excellent illustrations. In the Land of Punctuation is available now from Tara Books.
Lastly this week, reader Ben Denckla got in touch to point me towards his in-depth account of preparing an e-book by scanning an original printed edition — and the frequent punctuational conundrums that crept in as he did so. The book was Lionel Lord Tennyson’s 1933 autobiography, From Verse to Worse, and you can read about Ben’s travails in bringing it to fruition here.
Ben writes that he often runs into trouble at hyphenated line breaks: should “un-ionised”, broken across a line, be interpreted as “unionised” or “un-ionised”? A human copyeditor could almost certainly pick the right one (God help them if not), but a computer without the appropriate natural language processing abilities is stumped. What Ben wonders, then, is this: is it time for a graphical distinction between line-end and compound-word hyphens? That is, where a single word is broken across a line, should the resulting line-end hyphen be shown as, say, a tilde (∼)* rather than a plain hyphen (-)? Broken across a line, “un∼ionised” would be correctly understood to mean “unionised”, while the compound word “un-ionised”, with a conventional hyphen, remains “un-ionised”.
This has to be one of the few situations where a proposed new mark of punctuation clarifies a genuinely problematic area of typography, and I must thank Ben for telling me about it. What say you?
- F. MacCarthy, “Ditchling Village, 1907-1913.” Faber and Faber, 1989. ↩︎
- “Swung Dash,” Merriam-Webster Online, 2016. ↩︎
Things have been quiet lately on the interrobang front. Well, no longer. Take a look at this:
That is an interrobang and a half, I’m sure you’ll agree.
So, some context. Pearson is a global publishing and education company with fingers in many pies — schools, higher education, professional development, and traditional publishing via imprints such as Addison Wesley and Shady Characters’s own Penguin Books — that until recently possessed only the blandest of corporate logos.* In 2015, however, they decided to come up with a new identity. As Brand New reported, quoting from the press release that accompanied the rebranding exercise:
[Pearson wants to] transition from educational print publisher to a digital and services-led learning business. The ambition behind the new brand is to unify Pearson’s broad and diverse portfolio of products and services under one strong master brand; distinguish Pearson from its competition; drive global awareness and favourability, and serve as an important anchor for its employees around the world.
If you’re playing buzzword bingo, congratulations! You’ve hit the jackpot.
Jargon aside, the symbol that Pearson chose to represent its new, digital self is the interrobang, Martin K. Speckter’s inimitable mark of interrogation, consternation and excitement. Readers of Shady Characters will know the story of the interrobang’s genesis inside out, but Pearson’s press release recapitulates the basic idea for those less well versed in the world of unusual punctuation:
Combining a question mark with an exclamation mark, and encapsulated in a thumbprint, the logo represents the combination of excitement, curiosity and individuality that’s at the heart of Pearson’s approach to learning.
Aside from the underlying armature of the interrobang, the mark appears to have been created from scratch — certainly, I don’t recognise any particular donor typeface — and the blue “thumbprint” is allegedly intended to add a human touch to proceedings.† On balance, I think they’ve done a creditable job in preserving the character of the ‘‽’ while letting the reader/viewer know at the same time that this is a proprietary mark.
What now, then, for the interrobang? The one thing that niggles at me about all this (as first suggested by reader Bracken M on Twitter) is the idea that Speckter’s mark might come to be associated chiefly with Pearson rather than being acknowledged as a mark in its own right. And yet, my fervent hope is that its adoption as the logo of a major corporation will kick-start a wave of interest in the ‘‽’. Only time will tell.
Elsewhere, Wired published a very pleasing little slideshow of typographers’ favourite letterforms. Of course, the spectrum of printable characters being what it is, fully one-third of the fifteen typographers interviewed for the piece made distinctly leftfield choices: Peter Bil’ak chose the capital ‘Æ’ ligature; Sara Soskolne plumped for the double-S of the German eszett, or ‘ß’; and Jonathen Hoefler, Sophie Elinor Brown, and Michael Doret all chose the redoubtable ampersand, or ‘&’.
But then, all three amperfans have previous, as they say.
Jonathan Hoefler wrote about the ampersand back in 2008, noting that it was the middle name of his company Hoefler & Frere-Jones (now Hoefler & Co); Sophie Elinor Brown once created a whole bevy of ampersands she dubbed “the amperclan”; and Michael Doret’s company is called, simply, Ampersand Soup Type Founders. Whatever the interrobang’s fate in the long term, the ampersand looks likely to live on a(n)d infinitum.
Lastly, while listening to Slate’s excellent Lexicon Valley podcast the other week, I was happy to hear some air time devoted to Oxford Dictionaries’ selection of the “face with tears of joy” emoji, or 😂, as “word” of the year for 2015. Why this symbol rather than a word, or even a mark of punctuation? As explained at the Oxford Dictionaries blog,
This year Oxford University Press have partnered with leading mobile technology business SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emoji across the world, and 😂 was chosen because it was the most used emoji globally in 2015. SwiftKey identified that 😂 made up 20% of all the emojis used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of those in the US: a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014.
Granted, this is all rather academic in the absence of statistics about the use of emoji in comparison to words and/or marks of punctuation, but to make up 20% of all emoji used in the UK is quite a feat. In terms of my slightly rickety Zipf’s Law analysis of punctuation, “face with tears of joy” is the comma, sitting at the top of the pile. It may be neither a word nor a mark of punctuation, but it’s a worthy winner all the same.