02 January 2010

Your typing teacher was wrong

A few years ago I helped a friend lay hardwood floors in his house. I engaged in this work voluntarily, as an act of fraternity and amusement. As we worked, his wife overheard me talking about a twenty-some volume set of the works of Mark Twain that I had been fawning over at the local antiquarian book shop, and she snuck out and bought them right from under my nose, presenting them to me later that weekend to thank me for my help. I was touched by their generosity and thoughtfulness.

Over the past few years I'm been working my way through Mark Twain's writings. Presently, I’m reading Roughing It. The set was published by Harper & Brothers of New York in 1904. They are modestly bound in a green cloth and are printed letterpress with generous margins. The books were issued with the fore edges uncut, and many of the leaves were not cut open by the pervious owners. This discovery always leaves me a little disappointed; it certainly separates the readers from those who simply collect or decorate with books.

The typesetting is uniform across the set and is reasonable work, though it suffers from the wide spacing popular at that time, particularly excessive space between words and sentences. Even today, many people insist on a ‘double space’ following a full point. It’s a hangover from typewriter-based typing instruction and it has no place in the age of digital typography. It is but one of many lapses in good taste and judgement which somehow hangs on from Victorian-era typography. (I’ve marked up some of the ugly spacing in the photo of a page from Roughing It above.)

By way of contrast, consider the minimum word spacing employed in this page printed by the Italian publisher Michele Manzolo at Treviso in 1480. It may be a hair tighter than some modern readers would prefer, but I think it points the way. It produces a page of even colour which is pleasing to the eye. (This sheet is housed in the Morse collection in the Esther Clarke Wright Archives at Acadia University.)

One of the better contemporary books on the spacing of type is Geoffrey Dowding’s Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type, originally published by Wace & Company in 1954 and republished by Hartley & Marks in 1995. It’s a must-read for anyone interested typography and book design. The 1995 reprint also has a nice introduction by the Canadian letterpress printer Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press.



annie said...

I enjoyed this posting. I often say that the best thing I learned in high school was how to type. My parents had the foresight to encourage me and my three sibs to take at least one year of typing. I took two and have never regretted it. One of the things they taught us, as you point out, was to apply two spaces after each period. It took me a long time to realize that I didn't need to do this when I began to use a word processor.

thanks for the posting,


lynleystace said...

Like Annie, I consider typing one of the most valuable things I learnt in high school, even though the reason I took it was because there was no homework.

Fortunately the double-space-after-full-stop habit didn't take long to break, though I did have to keep using find and replace until I was completely recovered a few years ago... after reading a blog post very much like this one.

A friend who is a legal secretary tells me that the lawyers she has worked with (here in Australia) still insist on two spaces, so I don't think it's dead yet.