Read TYPES AND EYES: PROGRESS of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on ReadCentral.com.

The late John Bartlett, whose “Familiar Quotations” have encircled the globe, once remarked to a youthful visitor that it was a source of great comfort to him that in collecting books in his earlier years he had chosen editions printed in large type, “for now,” he said, “I am able to read them.” The fading eyesight of old age does not necessarily set the norm of print; but this is certain, that what age reads without difficulty youth will read without strain, and in view of the excessive burden put upon the eyes by the demands of modern life, it may be worth while to consider whether it is not wise to err on the safer side as regards the size of type, even by an ample margin.

It is now some thirty-five years since the first scientific experiments upon the relations of type to vision were made in France and Germany. It was peculiarly fitting, we may remark, that the investigation should have started in those two countries, for the German alphabet is notoriously hard on the eyes, and the French alphabet is encumbered with accents, which form an integral part of the written word, and yet are always minute and in poor print exceedingly hard to distinguish. The result of the investigation was a vigorous disapproval of the German type itself and of the French accents and the favorite style of letter in France, the condensed. It was pointed out that progress in type design towards the hygienic ideal must follow the direction of simplicity, uniformity, and relative heaviness of line, with wide letters and short descenders, all in type of sufficient size for easy reading. In the generation that has succeeded these experiments have we made any progress in adapting print to eyes along the lines of these conclusions?

The printer might well offer in proof of such progress the page in which these words are presented to the reader. In the four and a half centuries of printing, pages of equal clearness and beauty may be found if one knows just where to look for them, but the later examples all fall within the period that we are discussing. It may be objected that this is the luxury of printing, not its everyday necessity, and this objection must be allowed; but luxuries are a powerful factor in elevating the standard of living, and this is as true of print as of food and dress. It must be confessed that an unforeseen influence made itself felt early in the generation under discussion, that of William Morris and his Kelmscott Press. Morris’s types began and ended in the Gothic or Germanic spirit, and their excellence lies rather in the beauty of each single letter than in the effective mass-play of the letters in words. Kelmscott books, therefore, in spite of their decorative beauty, are not easy reading. In this respect they differ greatly from those of Bodoni, whose types to Morris and his followers appeared weak and ugly. Bodoni’s letters play together with perfect accord, and his pages, as a whole, possess a statuesque if not a decorative beauty. If the reader is not satisfied with the testimony of the page now before him, let him turn to the Bodoni Horace of 1791, in folio, where, in addition to the noble roman text of the poems, he will find an extremely clear and interesting italic employed in the preface, virtually a “library hand” script. But no force has told more powerfully for clearness and strength in types than the influence of Morris, and if he had done only this for printing he would have earned our lasting gratitude.

Morris held that no type smaller than long primer should ever be employed in a book intended for continuous reading; and here again, in size of type as distinguished from its cut, he made himself an exponent of one of the great forward movements that have so happily characterized the recent development of printing. Go to any public library and look at the novels issued from 1850 to 1880. Unless your memory is clear on this point, you will be amazed to see what small print certain publishers inflicted with apparent impunity on their patrons during this period. The practice extended to editions of popular authors like Dickens and Thackeray, editions that now find no readers, or find them only among the nearsighted.

The cheap editions of the present day, on the contrary, may be poor in paper and perhaps in presswork, they may be printed from worn plates, but in size and even in cut of type they are generally irreproachable. As regards nearsighted readers, it is well known that they prefer fine type to coarse, choosing, for instance, a Bible printed in diamond, and finding it clear and easy to read, while they can hardly read pica at all. This fact, in connection with the former tolerance of fine print, raises the question whether the world was not more nearsighted two generations ago than it is now; or does this only mean that the oculist is abroad in the land?

It is recognized that, in books not intended for continuous reading, small and even fine type may properly be employed. That miracle of encyclopedic information, the World Almanac, while it might be printed better and on a higher quality of paper, could not be the handy reference book that it is without the use of a type that would be intolerably small in a novel or a history. With the increase of the length of continuous use for which the book is intended, the size of the type should increase up to a certain point. Above eleven-point, or small pica, however, increase in the size of type becomes a matter not of hygiene, but simply of esthetics. But below the normal the printer’s motto should be: In case of doubt choose the larger type.

A development of public taste that is in line with this argument is the passing of the large-paper edition. It was always an anomaly; but our fathers did not stop to reason that, if a page has the right proportions at the start, mere increase of margin cannot enhance its beauty or dignity. At most it can only lend it a somewhat deceptive appearance of costliness, with which was usually coupled whatever attraction there might be in the restriction of this special edition to a very few copies. So they paid many dollars a pound for mere blank paper and fancied that they were getting their money’s worth. The most inappropriate books were put out in large paper, Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, for instance. At the other extreme of size may be cited the Pickering diamond classics, also in a large-paper edition, pretty, dainty little books, with their Lilliputian character only emphasized by their excess of white paper. But their print is too fine to read, and their margins are out of proportion to the printed page. Though their type is small, they by no means exhibit the miracle of the books printed in Didot’s “microscopic” type, and they represent effort in a direction that has no meaning for bookmaking, but remains a mere tour de force. Quite different is the case with the Oxford miniature editions, of the same size outwardly as the large-paper editions of the Pickering diamond classics; these are modern miracles, for with all their “infinite riches in a little room,” they are distinctly legible.

As regards the design of type, the recent decades have given us our choice among type-faces at once so beautiful and so clear as the Century Oldstyle, Century Expanded, and Cheltenham Wide. To those should be added Mr. Goudy’s virile Kennerley. Still later have appeared, in direct descent from one of Jenson’s type-faces, Cloister and Centaur, two of the most beautiful types of any age or country, and both, if we may judge by comparison with the types approved by the Clark University experiments, also among the most legible. Fortunately in type design there is no essential conflict between beauty and use, but rather a natural harmony. Already a high degree of legibility has been attained without sacrifice; the future is full of promise.

In respect to books, we may congratulate ourselves that printing has made real progress in the last generation towards meeting the primary demand of legibility. The form of print, however, which is read by the greatest number of eyes, the newspaper, shows much less advance. Yet newspapers have improved in presswork, and the typesetting machines have removed the evil of worn type. Moreover, a new element has come to the front that played a much more subordinate part three or four decades ago the headline. “Let me write the headlines of a people,” said the late Henry D. Lloyd to the writer, “and I care not who makes its laws.” It is the staring headlines that form the staple of the busy man’s newspaper reading, and they are certainly hygienic for the eyes if not always for the mind. While the trend towards larger and clearer type has gone on chiefly without the consciousness of the public, it has not been merely a reform imposed from without. The public prefers readable print, demands it, and is ready to pay for it. The magazines have long recognized this phase of public taste. When the newspapers have done the same, the eyes of coming generations will be relieved of a strain that can only be realized by those who in that day shall turn as a matter of antiquarian curiosity to the torturing fine print that so thickly beset the pathway of knowledge from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and, in the twentieth, overthrown in the field of books and magazines, made its last, wavering stand in the newspapers.