Splendid Isolation

Like most of us, I haven’t been able to work much these past two weeks. The escalation of the current situation makes everything else small. So it’s been a bit of a drag to open a book, or even think of research. Not because I don’t like it, or don’t believe in it anymore, but because it’s what I’ve done before when we were still allowed to hug, see friends, travel, and thousands of people had not been dead. So, I find myself doing things that I usually not do, like stress-tidying or stress-binge-watching of series I watched as a teenager. Extraordinary behaviour for extraordinary times. Or is that an excuse?

After all, I’ve got three lively books on punctuation and typography which I’ve been eager to read for a while: Sarah Hyndman’s Why Fonts Matter.  Bard Borch Michalsen’s Signs of Civilization: How Punctuation Changed History, and David Crystal’s You Have a Point.

London, 2016.

I started with the beautiful Hyndman book which focusses on how typeface influences our behaviour and understanding of the world. It’s full of engaging little exercises like musing about what flavour certain typefaces taste like, or how advertisement communicates the “character” of its product through typeface. Hyndman’s blog is a treasure-trove of quirky information and exciting experiments on typography, emotion, cognition, and just generally anything text design.

I whole-heartedly recommend the book for its creativity and gorgeous looks. At times, I wished myself to see more depth in terms of just quite why typeface is so powerful, has affective agency, can cause indignation and discord. A supposedly invisible thing, a transparent vessel holding words which we consider the real deal. Just like punctuation. Typography and punctuation are both under-estimated subtleties of text.

Playful and happy-go-lucky Cocon, developed by Dutch designer Evert Bloemsman in 2001.

Unfortunately, although certainly not intended, the book makes clear just how sexist typography is, that is, our attitudes to it: the book is rich, a little too rich even, in tasks of attaching expectations to a certain typeface and then checking your answer against what others have said in pre-publication surveys. For example, what job would the person do judged on the typeface of their business card. Inevitably, the curvy flourishing typefaces such as Garamond italic evoke ideas of traditionally female jobs, such as fashion stylist, planning country club galas, nail painter, hostess, beautician, looking pretty, being an expert on love. No kidding. These were people’s answers, and honestly, my own were somewhere on that scale, too. Cocon was judged to be a baker, carer, dancer, ditzy receptionist, manicurist, or dog groomer.

Developed by the French Didot family between 1784-1811. Originally signalling reason, enlightenment, and neo-classical virtues, Didot now connotes style and fashion, having been adopted by magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Didot, the typeface most often called “feminine” by the book (or the people taking part in the survey’s on which it is based), had its fair share of hostess and hairdresser, but at least culled some more high-end jobs, too, like academic, magazine editor, and, in a desperate attempt to somehow make it good, ‘female CEO’.

Quintessentially English? London-born Clarendon, 1845, Besley and Fox.

This persistent sexist strain seriously dampened my enjoyment of the book. It’s as if typography was all surface and no depth – nothing wrong with surfaces per se, but…when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes we have acquired throughout life…well. The same mechanism of thinking Clarendon is serious and professional and Cocon suggests looks and well-being (again, nothing wrong with that, but but but) — that is the same mechanism of sexism: there is nothing biological, and nothing natural about any of this. It’s habit, and habit only. Or is it? Are there not studies that we connect round shapes to sounds like /o/ for which our mouth becomes round too? Witness the word “blob”. And zig-zaggy shapes “sound” sharp. The bouba and kiki effect. So, one imagines the line of connection goes “round letter shape means round body shape means woman”. It’s all a bit depressing.

I guess if I’m asking the book these questions, or typography rather, I have to ask myself questions of why I think surfaces are shallow are bad.

Eventually, things are more complicated, and, just like the many layers of human skin which communicate with each other, surface and depth are relational, and gradients on a spectrum, are themselves, and are yet intimately connected. When does surface end and depth start?

Apart from all of that, I was quite struck by the choice to put a full stop at the end of the book’s title, and in red no less. Why Fonts Matter. Same goes for the back of the cover— ‘(and why they are lots of fun.)’ – full stop this time in back, in order to distinguish it from the white letters and red background.

In stark contrast to that choice, there is not a single full stop where it’s grammatically required, that is, at the end of proper sentences, e.g. ‘A CIP catalogue record is available from the British Library’ in the flyleaf. All that publishing information in full sentences lacks a full stop. Weird.

Seeing that Hyndman is a designer, she will surely have wanted and had maximum authority over the entire looks of her book, I thought, so I’ve written to her and asked. She said the publishing house passed it onto designers who took the decisions, so I wrote to Penguin who said they’d ask. To be continued.

And now, onto the next book and the next week in isolation.

The ‘sensuall-lyfe’ of Punctuation: Hyphen Part 3

Since it’s early stages of my project, I am focussing on brackets in romance in prose, but eventually I’d like to cover brackets in all kinds of romance, prose, poetry, and drama. So, as preparation for that second stage (and because it’s fun), I called up two manuscripts of Harington’s Orlando Furioso translation. One, a beautifully-bound clean book in secretary hand, both by Harington himself and his scribe (Bodleian, MS Rawl. poet. 125.). One a manuscript by a private person, one Richard Newell who transcribed choice passages of the poem, putting them together with copies of letters and accounts (MS Malone 2).

The book is quite a big folio, and wrapped in smooth but ungainly vellum. A book of use. Around ten to thirteen pages at the front and back are written in mixed secretary-italic hand with a fairly thick nib, and still dark black ink. The letters on the one side, and the accounts on the other, are dated to 1623.

Sandwiched between these letters and accounts, however, the largest part of the manuscript, is a selections of Harington’s 1591 English translation of Ariosto’s 1532 Italian romance Orlando Furioso. At the beginning of the tidy, nearly faultless transcription in a fairly small, neat italic hand is the date, 1645, and even the months that the writer worked on it (January and February). The ink is quite fair, and/or strongly faded, making it hard to read sometimes.

Newell picks and chooses from across the work, usually focussing on sets of scenes, or descriptions, rarely single stanzas. Scenes will have titles for improved finding, and he is careful to include the stanza number, ensuring accessibility for the sake of comparison, or re-reading of the printed text. This was a conscientious transcriber.

There area marginal inscriptions, pointing to the Italian, or commenting (inevitably, on the racy action of certain kinds of merrymaking!). I didn’t yet compare this manuscript to printed versions of the work, which would be key in terms of discovering whether those notes are from Newell himself or copied from the printed text (or an intermediate manuscript?). This would also be key in relation to the bracket. There are quite a few in this copy, and they are always carefully opened and closed, much in comparison to an Arcadia MS at the Bodleian that I recently looked at that had orphaned bracket halves dangling alone all over the place (entry on this to come soon!).

That work is for later, though. What struck me most with this manuscript was the persistent hyphenation of adjective-noun-combinations. Not always, but constant enough to point to a habit, and perhaps one of rhyme and reason.

In the ‘Description of Aleyna’, her hair is compared to ‘wire of beaten-gold’. Is ‘beaten-gold’ different from ‘beaten gold’? Perhaps.

I thought that, maybe, adding a hyphen between adjective and following noun is just a personal quirk, a slip of the eye or the hand even. But Newell is too thorough, and the phenomenon is too consistent to be accidental. On the other hand, it’s not always the case. Aleyna’s description continues:

Her lovely-Cheekes with shew of modest shame With roses and with Lillies painted are’.

Why ‘lovely-Cheekes’ and not ‘modest-shame’? Perhaps cheeks can only be lovely, while there are different kinds of shame. Or is this proof Newell’s hyphens are, well, not that deliberate after all?

I’d have to really look through the entire copy in order to assess that with more grounding in numbers of incidents. As it is, though, only because each and every case has not yet been judged, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Because it is. There. ‘Lovely-Cheekes’.  

My particular favourite comes in the description of two lovers, sporting a carefree life devoted to such very naughty things as hunting and frequent changing of clothes. And, of course, kissing in a way that makes it impossible to tell which tongue belongs to whom. We call that the French way.

In short: they lead a truly ‘sensuall-lyfe’.

See line 5.

Wrapped in each other, tongues twisting in French kiss, the hyphen makes their physical bonding visible. The distinction between adjective modifying noun disappear; the discrete boundaries between bodies do. It’s all one thing, the platonic whole, hyphenated sex. Sensuall-lyfe.