Artistry that's off the shelf

Five Hundred Years of Book Design
July 18, 2003

It may upset editors, but many collectors of books would maintain that in book production the most important mediator between author and reader is the book designer. Good book design allows the author's text to be transmitted as clearly as possible. Ideally, it does this without the reader noticing: it is simultaneously discreet and self-confident. Many choices - of typography, layout, spacing, justification and decoration - play a part in this unobtrusive aesthetic, all of which are handsomely illustrated in Alan Bartram's survey of 500 years of the western printed book.

Bartram's book claims a wide potential audience: students of graphic design and the history of the book, as well as bibliographers and bibliophiles. In fact the first will be best served, as Bartram has compiled what amounts to a pattern-book of some of the choicest examples (and a few how-not-to's) of book design. As a text on the history of the book, students will have to make do with a concise introduction and a summary. But what follows is a resourceful and beautifully produced catalogue raisonné of more than 100 examples of the book designer's craft.

The earliest examples selected demonstrate how inherent human conservatism ensures that our succeeding technologies tend not to kill off their predecessors outright but rather absorb and preserve in mutated style the key elements of the earlier form. So, our contemporary websites continue to be made up of "pages" that we "scroll" through. A similar cannibalistic relationship developed between the earliest printed books and their manuscript counterparts. The eye-befuddling undecorated solid blocks of unparagraphed text of Nicolas Jenson's first printed attempts were quickly improved with an opened-out style of shorter, reader-friendly lines and indented paragraphs that absorbed the best design features developed by the medieval scribes.

From here, the examples are arranged in a broad chronology that allows a clear sense of historical development to emerge. Bartram's half-millennium of book design takes us from Jenson to the 1953 Penguin edition of Love's Labour's Lost, with a fairly heavy personal bias towards the 18th century.

But it is hard to fault the selection: all of the great names of book production are here.

The illustrations of text pages, which make up the great part of the volume, are followed by a briefer selection of title-pages, the emphasis belying Stanley Morison's assertion that "the history of printing is in large measure the history of the title-page".

It is not in itself a problem that the photographs throughout are in black and white, though the book is somewhat monotone in more ways than one. The texts are, of course, the focus, but this leads to a rather dehumanised survey of the development of book design: one will need to look elsewhere, and beyond the limited bibliography, for the characters that would colour this account, and for the imperatives that activated their work.

The emphasis throughout is on good design that ensures legibility, clarity and comfort to the eye and mind of the reader. The publishers have produced a handsome volume; its dimensions (310mm by 165mm) are especially striking, but they do contravene the generally accepted optimum range for the ratio of page height to width. And its shape will make it an awkward volume to safeguard on standard library shelves.

Christopher Phipps is reader services librarian, London Library.

Five Hundred Years of Book Design

Author - Alan Bartram
ISBN - 0 7123 4737 2
Publisher - British Library
Price - £25.00
Pages - 192

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