Read PRINTING PROBLEMS FOR SCIENCE TO SOLVE of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on

The book seems to have been regarded for hundreds of years for thousands of years if we include its prototypes as a thing apart, subject to its own laws of beauty, utility, and economy. But recently men have come to realize that the book has no special esthetic license, that what is barbarous art elsewhere is barbarous in the book; they also recognize that the book is within the domain of economics, that the invention of typography was primarily a reduction of cost, and that a myriad later processes, which make the book what it is to-day, are all developments of the same principle. What has not been so clearly seen is that in the field of utility the book is not independent, cannot impose conditions upon its users, but is an instrument strictly subordinate to human needs. The establishment of its efficiency has only begun when we have adapted it to the convenience of the hand and the bookshelf. The real tests of its utility are subtle, not gross, and are, in fact, beyond the range of ordinary haphazard experience. In this field popular judgment may be right or wrong; it offers merely an opinion, which it cannot prove. But here that higher power of common sense that we call science comes in and gives verdicts that take account of all the elements involved and can be verified. Rather this is what science has not yet done for printing, or has done only in part, but which we confidently expect it is about to do.

What then are some of the points that we may call in science to settle? We know surely that fine type, bad presswork, pale ink on gray paper are all bad for the eyes. But there are a host of other matters connected with printing, we may even say most matters, in regard to which our knowledge is either uncertain or indefinite. In respect to this whole range of practical printing subjects we want to know just what practice is the best and by what percentage of superiority. This quantitative element in the solution is of great importance, for when rival considerations, the esthetic, the economic, for instance, plead for one choice as against another, we shall know just how much sacrifice of utility is involved. The tests for which we look to science cover everything that goes to make up the physical side of the book. The tests themselves, however, are psychological, for the book makes its appeal to the mind through one of the senses, that of sight, and therefore its adaptedness to the manifold peculiarities of human vision must be the final criterion of its utility.

Beginning with the material basis of the book paper most readers are sure that both eggshell and glaze finish are a hindrance to easy reading and even hurtful to the eyes; but which is worse and how much? Is there any difference as regards legibility between antique and medium plate finish, and which is better and by what percentage? In regard to the color as well as the surface of paper we are largely at sea. We realize that contrast between paper and ink is necessary, but is the greatest contrast the best? Is the blackest black on the whitest white better, for instance, than blue-black on buff-white, and how much? Is white on black not better than black on white, and, if so, in what exact degree? Or is the real solution to be found in some other color contrast as yet untried? The very mention of some of these possibilities shocks our prejudices and stirs our conservatism to revolt in advance; yet, with or against our will, we may be perfectly sure that the changes which science finally pronounces imperative will be made.

Who can tell what is the normal length of line for legibility, or whether there is one, and whether there is an ideal size of type, or what it is? Are the newspapers, for instance, right as to length of line and the books as to size of type, as many suppose? Has each size of type a length of line normal to it? How is this affected by leading, or is leading merely of imaginary value? Is large type desirable for the schoolbooks of the youngest children, and may the type be made smaller, down to a certain limit, without harm, as the children grow older, or is there one ideal size for all ages? It is frankly recognized that in certain works, like editions of the poets, legibility may properly be sacrificed in some degree to beauty, and in certain reference works, again, to economy of space; but we should like to know, as we do not now with any exactness, what amount of legibility is surrendered.

It is easy, however, to see that one great battleground of controversy in any suggested reforms must be the design of the type itself. Here, fortunately, the English public starts with a great advantage. We have thrown overboard our old black letter with its dazzling contrasts of shading and its fussy ornament, and therefore can begin where the Germans must some day leave off. We have no accents or other diacritical marks, and in this respect are superior to the French also. We start with a fairly extended and distinct letter like Caslon for our norm, but even so the problem is in the highest degree complex and baffling. First, accepting the traditional forms of the letters, we must determine whether light or heavy, even or shaded, condensed or extended letters are the more legible, and always in what proportion. We shall then be in a position to decide the relative standing of the various commercial types, if such we find, that fairly well meet the conditions. It will also be obvious what changes can be introduced to improve the types that stand highest. By and by the limit of improvement will be reached under the traditional forms of the letters. It will next be the task of science to show by what modifications or substitutions the poorest letters, such as s z e a x o can be brought up to the visibility of the best letters, such as m w d j l p. Some of these changes may be slight, such as shortening the overhang of the a and slanting the bar of the e, while others may involve forms that are practically new. It is worth remembering at this point that while our capital letters are strictly Roman, our small or lowercase letters came into being during the middle ages, and many of them would not be recognized by an ancient Roman as having any relation to his alphabet. They therefore belong to the modern world and can be altered without sacrilege.

There will remain other problems to be solved, such as the use of capitals at all; punctuation, whether to keep our present practice or to devise a better; the use of spacing between paragraphs, words, and even letters; besides numerous problems now hardly guessed. Many of the conclusions of science will be openly challenged, but such opposition is easiest to overcome. Harder to meet will be the opposition of prejudice, one of whose favorite weapons is always ridicule. But the results of science in the field of printing, as in every other, are sure to make their way into practice, and here their beneficent effect in the relief of eye strain and its consequent nervous wear and in the saving of time is beyond our present power to calculate or even imagine. The world at the end of the twentieth century will be a different world from this, a far better world, we trust; and one of the potent influences in bringing about that improvement will then be traced, we are confident, to the fact that, near the beginning of the century, science was called in to solve those problems of the book that belong to the laboratory rather than to the printing office.