By Josh deLacy
When I need to see a book without reading it, I’ll spin the page upside down so the letters look like cuneiform and the ideas fall out. I’ll spread pens, highlighters, and half a ream of upside-down manuscript across a table and flip through it without reading a single word. Each page gives the reader a window into the story, but I’m not reading—I’m cleaning, and it’s easier to fix those windows without the author dancing in front of them. I brush off rivers and word stacks, buff out awkward hyphens, and wipe away excess word spacing. I clean smudges, more or less, to help the reader see the story without distraction.
If this sort of upside-down work is custodial, another part of book design is architectural. I’ll unfocus my eyes a bit so even the cuneiform dissolves, and this is when the windows really appear: one on each page, complete with a sill (the page number and running foot), window trim (the margins), and some ornamentation here and there (chapter titles and dropped capitals). Is the trim too narrow? Are the windows too tall? Do the page numbers crowd the text blocks, or do the text blocks crowd the margins? I stretch, reposition, and adjust until the windows feel balanced, until the page’s layout fits its idea.
Reading should feel like breathing. If you have to think about it, something’s gone wrong. I want the reader to find herself strolling through the Shire without needing to first stop and tie her shoes, buckle her pack, and make the conscious decision to step into the page. Book design should eliminate anything that reminds the reader she’s reading.
But how? It often takes generous margins, breathing room between lines, line lengths of fifty to seventy-five characters, and a typeface distinguished by serifs, reasonable x-heights, and not-too-similar stroke widths—plus a cart full of other window-cleaning supplies. But there’s no prescribed technique for how to use them. A mathematically perfect solution for readability might exist, but not for understanding, for the same reason a mathematically perfect story doesn’t exist: words aren’t enough.
Ideas don’t fit neatly into sentences. Churches excommunicate each other over different interpretations of the same Gospel passages. Who feels satisfied after writing a one-paragraph description of themselves, or even a book-length description? “It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact,” wrote Margaret Atwood. “You always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.” What does love mean exactly, or God, or art? We catch glimpses of it, we share moments of understanding, but words can’t get us all the way there. And so, as Oskar Kokoschka, a poet and painter, put it: “We must strive through the penumbra of words to the core within.”
Making the text readable is only half the responsibility of good book design. The other half: making the idea readable. Just as inflection can add clarity to spoken words, so can book design add clarity to printed words. The choice of typeface, the generosity of the margins, the alignment of text—all these pieces influence the reader’s interpretation of the writer’s idea. They work in the background, too subtle for most readers to consciously notice or care about, but book designers claim these things matter. Poetry books, at any rate, do not look like newspapers. Science textbooks don’t look like classic novels. Set Harry Potter in Arial, and its magical opening looks a bit like a squib.
The same painting seen in a museum, in a dining room, and on the wall of a subway station is not the same painting, because no one experiences art in a vacuum, just as no one reads pure text. Although 12pt Times New Roman might come standard on Microsoft Word, there’s no such thing as “normal writing.” Each of the four books below, for instance, sets a particular tone before the reader even makes it to the first word.
And so “the reader” is also “the viewer,” and every book is a visual arts project. Atmosphere, tone, pace, focus—this is the second job of book design. As Henry Matisse said, “A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety.” No incongruity between the story and its shape. No smudges, no distractions. Everything I do when designing a book has one goal: after I’ve picked out the windows and polished the glass, after I’ve spun the book right-side up again, I want the reader to see dancing.
NPR called Josh deLacy “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. Josh builds websites and designs books as the director of Branded Look LLC, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in places such as The Emerson Review, Levee Magazine, and Perspectives.