Read EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE OF LEGIBILITY of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on ReadCentral.com.

Since print is meant primarily to be read, the first law of its being is legibility. As a general principle this must be accepted, but in the application certain important reservations must be made, all relating themselves to the question how the print is to be read. For straightaway, long-time reading, or for reading in which the aim is to get at the words of the author with the least hindrance, the law of legibility holds to its full extent is, in fact, an axiom; but not all reading is long-continued, and not all is apart from considerations other than instantaneous contact with the author’s thought through his words. It is these two classes of exceptions that we have now to consider.

Let us begin with an example outside the field of typography. On the first issue of the Lincoln cent were various sizes of lettering, the largest being devoted to the words which denote the value of the coin, and the smallest, quite undistinguishable in ordinary handling, to the initials of the designer, afterwards discarded. Obviously these sizes were chosen with reference to their power to attract attention; in the one case an excess of legibility and in the other case, quite as properly, its deficiency. Thus, what is not designed for the cursory reader’s eye, but serves only as a record to be consulted by those who are specially interested in it, may, with propriety, be made so inconspicuous as to be legible only by a distinct effort. Cases in everyday typography are the signatures of books and the cabalistic symbols that indicate to the newspaper counting room the standing of advertisements. Both are customarily rendered inconspicuous through obscure position, and if to this be added the relative illegibility of fine type, the average reader will not complain, for all will escape his notice.

Again, we may say that what is not intended for ordinary continuous reading may, without criticism, be consigned to type below normal size. Certain classes of books that are intended only for brief consultation come under this head, the best examples being encyclopedias, dictionaries, and almanacs. As compactness is one of their prime requisites, it is a mistake to put them into type even comfortably large. The reader opens them only for momentary reference, and he can well afford to sacrifice a certain degree of legibility to handiness. The Encyclopædia Britannica is a classic instance of a work made bulky by type unnecessarily coarse for its purpose; the later, amazingly clear, photographic reduction of the Britannica volumes is a recognition of this initial mistake. The Century and Oxford dictionaries, on the other hand, are splendid examples of the judicious employment of fine print for the purpose both of condensation and the gradation of emphasis. One has only to contrast with these a similar work in uniform type, such as Littre’s Dictionnaire, to appreciate their superiority for ready reference.

The departure from legibility that we have thus far considered has related to the size of the letters. Another equally marked departure is possible in respect to their shape. In business printing, especially in newspaper advertisements, men are sometimes tempted to gain amount at the risk of undue fineness of type. But no advertiser who counts the cost will take the chance of rendering his announcement unreadable by the use of ornamental or otherwise imperfectly legible letters. He sets no value upon the form save as a carrier of substance. In works of literature, on the contrary, form may take on an importance of its own; it may even be made tributary to the substance at some cost to legibility.

In this field there is room for type the chief merit of which is apart from its legibility. In other words, there is and always will be a place for beauty in typography, even though it involve a certain loss of clearness. As related to the total bulk of printing, works of this class never can amount to more than a fraction of one per cent. But their proportion in the library of a cultivated man would be vastly greater, possibly as high as fifty per cent. In such works the esthetic sense demands not merely that the type be a carrier of the alphabet, but also that it interpret or at least harmonize with the subject-matter. Who ever saw Mr. Updike’s specimen pages for an edition of the “Imitatio Christi,” in old English type, without a desire to possess the completed work? Yet we have editions of the “Imitatio” that are far more legible and convenient. The “Prayers” of Dr. Samuel Johnson have several times been published in what we may call tribute typography; but no edition has yet attained to a degree of homage that satisfies the lovers of those unaffected devotional exercises.

What, therefore, shall be the typography of books that we love, that we know by heart? In them, surely, beauty and fitness may precede legibility unchallenged. These are the books that we most desire and cherish; this is the richest field for the typographic artist, and one that we venture to pronounce, in spite of all that has yet been done, still almost untilled. Such books need not be expensive; we can imagine a popular series that should deserve the name of tribute typography. Certain recent editions of the German classics, perhaps, come nearer to justifying such a claim than any contemporary British or American work. In more expensive publications some of Mr. Mosher’s work, like his quarto edition of Burton’s “Kasidah,” merits a place in this class. A better known, if older, instance is the holiday edition of Longfellow’s “Skeleton in Armor.” Who would not rather read the poem in this Old English type than in any Roman type in which it has ever been printed? The work of the Kelmscott Press obviously falls within this class.

The truth is, there is a large body of favorite literature which we are glad to be made to linger over, to have, in its perusal, a brake put upon the speed of our reading; and in no way can this be done so agreeably as by a typography that possesses a charm of its own to arrest the eye. Such a delay increases while it prolongs the pleasure of our reading. The typography becomes not only a frame to heighten the beauty of the picture, but also a spell to lengthen our enjoyment of it. It cannot be expected that the use of impressive type will be confined to literature. That worthiest use will find the field already invaded by pamphlet and leaflet advertisements, and this invasion is certain to increase as the public taste becomes trained to types that make an esthetic appeal of their own.

Ordinary type is the result of an attempt to combine with legibility an all-round fitness of expression. But that very universality robs it of special appropriateness for works of a strongly marked character. It is impossible to have a new type designed for every new work, but classes of types are feasible, each adapted to a special class of literature. Already there is a tendency to seek for poetry a type that is at least removed from the commonplace. But hitherto the recognition of this principle has been only occasional and haphazard. Where much is to be gained much also can be lost, and interpretative or expressional typography that misses the mark may easily be of a kind to make the judicious grieve. But the rewards of success warrant the risk. The most beautiful of recent types, the New Humanistic, designed for The University Press, has hardly yet been used. Let us hope that it may soon find its wider mission so successfully as to furnish an ideal confirmation of the principle that we have here been seeking to establish.