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The Elements of Typographic Style (version 3.1) is certainly a very well written book that contains not only a great deal of useful information but also interesting insights of a more subjective nature. However, it is not as perfect as practically every other review posted here suggests, and I would like to point out a few aspects in which it could be improved.
Little more than half of the 382-page book is filled with what I would call the actual "core" of the work. The other half is dedicated to analyses of the author's favourite typefaces (about 80 pages) and several appendices. There is nothing inherently bad about this distribution, but unfortunately some of the core parts were only given a cursory mention, when in my opinion they deserved more in-depth discussions.
So, for example:
(a) In chapter 8, Shaping the Page, the author lists countless page and textblock proportions and provides a large number of geometric figures representing page formats, but does little more than give each proportion a name ("Full Cross Octagon page", "Turned Hexagon" etc). He then gives a few examples, but not nearly enough, and leaves the reader wanting for more details on which proportions or formats would, in the author's analysis, be more appropriate for this or that type of text. And most of the numbers and diagrams merely take up space in the book, since just knowing about their existence does not help much.
(b) Two diagrams on page 6 (just before the table of contents) are supposed to show the reader how the author came up with the proportions for the book's pages and textblocks. Unfortunately, the hexagons, circles and intersecting lines are not accompanied by any kind of explanation (and reading chapter 8 is not enough to decipher them), so instead of serving as a useful practical example they do little more than decorate the front matter.
(c) In chapter 10, Grooming the Font, Bringhurst advises readers to mend defective glyphs and make glyphs that are missing from a font, but does not suggest ways in which these tasks might be accomplished. One can more or less guess how he went about making the corrections to Photina shown as an example, but it would be useful to be given a little more detailed information. Someone who needs to be told to fix a font certainly needs to be told how to fix it.
(d) On pages 204 and 205, the author shows "part of a text file designed to test for missing or dislocated glyphs". Why not give the reader the full file, as an appendix perhaps? Why not save the reader the trouble of trying to reproduce the full test text (after googling in vain for it), which probably will not be nearly as good as the one Bringhurst, a master typographer, has produced over the years?
(e) The author's suggestions for further reading are not annotated in any way, and many, if not most, of the books mentioned are out of print. The reader will seldom find information about the contents of the out-of-print books (which are often not made clear by the title) on Amazon.com, so comments by the author would have been extremely useful.
Another slightly disappointing feature of a book that has a section on page design is the fact that, at least in my humble opinion, the textblock is a little too close to the spine for comfortable reading - but maybe there wasn't much the author could have done to anticipate the way the binding would work.
In the end, anyone serious about typography will want to get this book anyway: not only because it is probably the best in its class, but also because Bringhurst is a master from whom a lot can be learned. Having said that, until the issues mentioned above are addressed (perhaps in a future edition?), I would not consider this book worthy of "bible status".
I wrote the above review several years ago and originally gave the book four stars. In a recent comment on my review, fellow reader Steve McFarland wrote: "I only wanted to say, half-seriously: the Bible has a lot more flaws than this, but it's still the Bible - I say Bringhurst wrote the definitive text, warts and all!" And he's right: expecting absolute perfection is unrealistic and unreasonable. Five stars it is.
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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.