In his Foreword Bringhurst declares his admiration for Strunk and White's
rightly acclaimed guide to good writing, whose title differs by just one
word from this book's. But a considerable distance separates the contents
of these two works: Elements of Style is clear, no-nonsense guide full of
wise advice, plainly expressed; the book embodies its principles perfectly.
Bringhurst says he set himself "to compile simple list of working principles"
but that idea seems to have been completely submerged in the book he wrote.
What principles are in play in Chapter 11, Prowling the Specimen Book, where
he explores more than 100 typefaces with historical asides? His answer (p 211):
"Call the type by its honest name if you can." Practical advice.
Self-indulgent excess is the rule here, not disciplined, focused writing.
In a book about essentials (Elements), what is the purpose of a complete
catalog of every possible accent and decoration of the roman alphabet,
some used only in languages like Sahaptin, Lillooet and Arika?
And while I described Strunk and White as no-nonsense, there is plenty of
nonsense to be found in Bringhurst. Chapter 8, Shaping the Page, concerns an
important practical matter. But the author gives us musical metaphors and a
collection of fanciful geometrical constructions with no logical or esthetic
foundation that I could fathom. Page layouts based on pairs of circles,
pentagons, hexagons with diagonals and some that look like illustrations
of Desargues' Theorem. The truth is that any proportion can be derived
from a geometrical construction. I was able to find a figure to explain
the text-block of this book based on a regular heptagon, but I place no
significance on this fact, the same amount Bringhurst's examples deserve.
A book about typography, just as one on writing, offers itself as a specimen
of good practice. The typeface and the even density (called "color" in the
trade) are exemplary. But on the large scale there are problems: the text
is set too close to the fold, making it difficult to read since the book
cannot be laid flat without cracking the spine. On the whole I found the
narrow proportions of the page and the text unappealing. There is no list of
contents, and no running head to indicate the chapter. Instead the chapter
title sometimes appears in the margin, if that space has not been used for
a note. These deficiencies mean navigation, vital in a work of reference,
is thwarted. Bringhurst organizes his material into three numbered levels,
as in "5.2.7 Use ellipses that fit the font". Yet he never refers to these
numbers, or the headings, which are just ornaments.
As Bringhurst himself hints, typesetting a novel is pretty easy: it's
uniform text with occasional interruptions for chapters. The challenges
are in getting a satisfactory layout for material with figures, tables,
graphics or mathematics. On the last issue Bringhurst is silent: the index
item "mathematics and typesetting" refers to a little essay on why a bit of
arithmetic and elementary geometry are useful and the reader should not be
dismayed at them, not, as I had hoped, on how to set mathematical material.
In north America today, almost all technical books containing substantial
amounts of mathematics, and most scientific journals, rely on Donald Knuth's
system TEX. Surely this realm of publishing is more important than how to
set Sanskrit or polytonal Greek. Not a word. However distasteful he may find
this topic, and abhor the barbaric practices now in use, Bringhurst should
have given the reader some guidance, and exercised his refined critical
apparatus on this subject. It is a massive, unforgivable oversight.
Much as Bringhurst may admire Strunk and White, he has failed by a wide
margin (no pun intended) to emulate their example. There is a great deal of
interesting and useful material here, but there is an equal, and maybe even
greater quantity of historical commentary, literary excursion and needless
cataloging, which often obscures the simple principles the writer
hopes to expose.