On growing old

The first senior's moment

No man is so old that he does not think himself able to live another year. (Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere)

I was thinking of that line from Cicero this week when I attended a friend’s drop-in post-Christmas party. Most of the many people in attendance were my age or older. Few were under 50. All were active, engaged, alert, conversing and despite the relentless march of time, as alive that evening as they had ever been in their lives. And I suspect most, like me, believe they have many more years, even decades of life ahead of them. We all do, no matter how old we get.

And Canadians have good reason for that optimism, given our high standard of living, our clean air, water, our access to good, healthy food, our civil society, and our excellent publicly-funded health care service. In Canada old age in reasonable health and mental acuity is available for most of us, not just the rich.

As a generation, we are, I think, changing the conversation about aging; changing the social and cultural context around growing old and the inevitable death we all face. It’s in part because the Boomer generation has reached the threshold where death is not some distant possibility and we recognize that. It’s here. Nearby. We read the obituaries of contemporary friends and pop icons almost daily.

But because we have approached our lives more actively and energetically than many previous generations, we bring our optimism to aging. And for many a more pragmatic, accepting approach to death.

I just finished reading two translations of Cicero’s book Cato Maior de Senectute – variously translated as On Aging, On Growing Old or as Philip Freeman gives us, How to Grow Old, written in 44 BCE when Cicero was 62. I recommend it to everyone for its clear, practical approach to old age and dying.

It’s not really a manual, as Freeman’s title suggests (and his, I believe, is the best translation), rather it was written as a series of conversations between an older man and two younger men. Cicero puts his own thoughts and reflections on age into the mouth of the late Cato the Elder (Marcus Porcius Cato) to “give my essay greater weight” as Cicero himself wrote. You can read a Loeb Classic translation from 1923 here.
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The vulgar crowd

HoraceProfanum vulgus. The vulgar crowd. Not, however, as you might suspect, an apt description of the remaining few supporters of The Block that rules Collingwood Council. While perhaps appropriately described, to me that small handful are better described as naïve, gullible and even intellectually vulnerable, moreso than merely vulgar. But that’s not what this post is about.

Odi profanum volgus et arceo. The words open the first ode in Horace’s third book (Carminum Liber Tertius): I shun the profane crowd. Or the uninitiated crowd. The rabble, or mob. As A.S.Kline translates it:

I hate the vulgar crowd, and keep them away:
grant me your silence. A priest of the Muses,
I sing a song never heard before,
I sing a song for young women and boys.

True, the poem has a subtle political context that might make one think of the Block and their disingenuous election campaign, as Kline translates:

It’s true that one man will lay out his vineyards
over wider acres than will his neighbour,
that one candidate who descends to
the Campus, will maintain that he’s nobler,

another’s more famous, or has a larger
crowd of followers: but Necessity sorts
the fates of high and low with equal
justice: the roomy urn holds every name.

The poem is really about the equality that death brings everyone and the pointlessness of our base pursuits. That roomy, capacious urn at the end of the line is where we all eventually end up regardless of our status and wealth. Horace also contemplates how little riches and rank offer in comparison to his small Sabine farm, and says how content he is with his lot.

But as usual, Horace isn’t that simple; the poem has more to contemplate than just one notion. I’m trying to understand it all and the choice of words in the translation matter.
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Eheu fugaces, Postume…

Old ageAlas, Postumus, the swift years slip away. Those words are one translation of the opening line of the 14th Ode in the second book of Horace’s carminas, or songs: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume/labuntur anni… *

For me, it’s his most moving piece, a bittersweet acceptance of mortality; the inevitability of age and death. Something no one in his or her sixties cannot help but think about. And about which Horace wrote several times.

Many of Horace’s poems are moving; very down to earth. His most touching odes read not so much as poetry meant for a wide audience, but rather as personal meditations on life. Perhaps that accounts for their continued popularity.

I’ve been reading a lot of Horace of late, thanks to a very personal and entertaining book about the poet by Harry Eyres (I reviewed it recently and more about it, below). Being an unlettered autodidact struggling to look ad fontes (to the sources), I find it helps to be introduced into the classics by those who know them better. Once there, I may find my own way or search additional help in understanding.

(Why, I ask myself, did I not take these in school, why was my education so thin on the classics? Remedial self-learning is required…)

For me, these poems also cement a connection across the millennia that divides us. There’s a comfort in knowing that the Romans and others in the past were concerned about the same, basic things that still concern us today, that they wrestled with the same thoughts, worries and joys that keep us awake at night. Once stripped of our shell of trivia, technology and consumerism that often cocoons us, our core focus is still small, biological and deeply personal: life, death, love, sex, relationships, friendships, pleasure, pain, food. Horace writes about them in a very matter-of-fact manner.

And while the ancient Greeks and Romans were also deeply immersed in debating faith, politics and war, Horace for the most part ignores them. Sure, he mentions people, battles, gods quite a lot, but they appear as (for him) common cultural signposts on the journey, not matters of deep concern or belief. Which helps both his continued relevance and allows modern writers (like David Ferry) to translate the poems into something that speaks to us now. Perhaps the continued rewriting for a new audience is why, as Horace wrote, his poems would outlast bronze.

Viktor Frankl wrote that our most deeply held drive is our search for meaning. We all to greater or lesser degree, question why we’re here. What differs, I suppose, is how we choose to deal with that questioning. Do we accept a fixed ideology, a faith, a belief as the unalterable bedrock of meaning, and stop looking further? Stop questioning, stop diving into the dark, unanswered depths? Or, as the Buddha admonished the Kalamas, do we question everything, build our own meaning from the individual blocks of knowledge like some philosophical Lego set?

I prefer to find my own way, even if it means stumbling in the dark for some time (and, yes, I have stumbled, and continue to stumble because it’s a journey with no real end). I personally like to look into the mirror of what others have found to see if I can find my own reflection. Sometimes I can recognize the face peering back. Other times it’s a fun-house mirror that stares at me. What matters is that I keep looking, keep peering into the glass. True my personal, philosophical Lego construction looks a bit dodgy and unstable a lot of the time, but at least it’s my own.

Frankl wrote, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” So I keep looking, keep walking into the dark passage using for a light the works of someone who went before me. Horace is just one of those candles.

But a comforting, increasingly familiar one these days.
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The subtle art of Mark Manson

Life, sometimes...I have a healthy skepticism towards anything labelled a “self-help” book – especially those that aim at making your life happier or more fulfilled through some fad, superstition or pseudoscience. I am, as you know from this blog, cynical towards the unending volume of New Age woo hoo, fads and pseudoscience that pollutes bookstore shelves and the internet.

I’m more of the “life’s a bitch and then you die” outlook kind-of-person than someone in search of a happy-platitude guru. I don’t post pictures of kittens, puppies or angels on my Facebook timeline. I’ve never been into that cosmic happiness-bucket list self-esteem-boosting selfie thing. Even in the Sixties when Timothy Leary was leading the charge for better living through chemistry, I was skeptical about claims of instant gratification available through the all-of all-the-answers-to-be-found-within-my-(book/religion/teaching/drug/politics) outlets for mass gratification.

Or mass gullibility. But people want answers to the meaning of life, and in our culture they want them quickly. Sometimes it’s easier to just take what you’re fed than work them out the hard way. Take the red pill and I’ll give you all the answers you need to know. Religion has been handing the red pills out for our entire history. Self-help or self-improvement books have been close behind, with us ever since the dawn of writing.

“Self help” books are really oxymorons: they’re someone else telling you what to do. They’re author help, not self help, like the old paper Arthur Murray dance steps on the floor which you carefully step across without the music. Life lessons on how to live, love, shop, drive, code, wash your dog, plant your garden. Often these books are little more than sales pitches for more of the same; for subscriptions, or additional products. Snake oil wrapped in cotton candy.

But some run deeper. Some are lessons in philosophy and politics drawn from personal experience and deep thought. Some aren’t as much step-by-step lessons as invitations to think about the options and consequences. True, not many today, because thinking is too hard for the selfie generation and interrupts their obsessed gazing at their smartphones, but now and then a book pops up in the self-help section that makes me look twice. Such is the case of Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (HarperCollins, 2016).

After all, isn’t that just what you feel like sometimes? Not giving a f*ck. I know I sure do. Especially after an hour on Facebook or watching Collingwood Council drag us into municipal despair.*

I had to buy a copy with a title like that. But what really sold me was the chapter titled “You Are Not Special.” Yep, I need to read that one.

I’m tired of the ‘I’m special, you’re special, we’re all exceptional’ folderol, the awards for losing instead of winning, the deflection of constructive criticism in case it dents a bubble of precious self esteem and the claptrap about indigo children. No, you’re not special. Neither am I. Indigo children are just spoiled kids with loopy parents. We’re all just one out of seven billion. There weren’t angels attending your birth, the gods don’t favour you and unicorns don’t follow when you commute to work. Get over it.

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Does anyone still read books?

Reading statisticsI came across an early version of this infographic on Facebook and it shook me to my core. You can see it here. The updated and corrected infographic is shown to the right. It is only marginally less distressing than the earlier one.

Unfortunately, the early one, although inaccurate and misleading, is still being shared. That early graphic is based on some disputed statistics and unfounded claims, but it’s worth examining to understand my reaction.

Reading is so central to my life that the notion that anyone would stop reading books simply gobsmacks me. I can barely go eight hours without reading one or more books, let alone years or even decades. That would be like a life sentence in solitary confinement.

Worse, think about the dangers an un-reading public presents to any democracy. How will people understand issues, how will they pick their leaders, how will they make their life choices if they don’t read. Television cannot educate them, especially not with our politicized media and its reduction of content to a few seconds of video and soundbites, set free from the mooring of context. And the internet has fragmented it even more. As Ray Bradbury said in 1993:

The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. Ray Bradbury, 1993, interviewed by Misha Berson.

I have books stacked beside the bed, in our washrooms; I carry books with me in the car, in my shoulder bag, luggage, to conferences and conventions, large ones for the table, fat ones for the bed, small ones that can fit in my coat pocket…*

What a sad life non-readers live. I cannot imagine the intellectual poverty of someone who doesn’t read regularly and passionately. **

There are plenty of sites with statistics about reading online, few of which offer any uplifting news. But there are also far too many sites with dubious or unattributed figures. For example, on Statistics Brain I read that:

  • Total percent of U.S. high school graduates who will never read a book after high school: 33%
  • Total percentage of college students who will never read another book after they graduate: 42%

Scary, yes, but not true. What is the source of this data? Without a reference to the research, without the methodology, sample size, or source, this is meaningless. It becomes just more internet codswallop, tossed into the same intellectual wastebin as chemtrails and homeopathy. But this is the stuff people seem to share.
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Horace and him. And maybe me, too.

Horace and MeHorace and Me, subtitled Life lessons from an Ancient Poet, is a recent book by Harry Eyres (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013) about his efforts to connect the dots of his modern life to meaning via the ancient circuitry of a classical Latin poet. It attracted me because these past few years I have been reading such classics – albeit without the classical education or Latin learning of Eyres and other writers who have recently returned to the Latin and Greek authors. Any help I can get along the way is welcome.

Horace – more properly Quintus Horatius Flaccus – was a Roman poet (among other things) who lived 65-8 BCE – during Rome’s turbulent transition from republic to imperium when Julius Caesar rose to power, was assassinated, and the civil war that saw Octavius emerge victorious and become the emperor Augustus. Horace wrote several books including the more famous Odes and Epodes, and two books of satires. His reputation has fluctuated through the millennia, from adoration to dismissal (Byron wrote “…farewell, Horace, whom I hated so….”)

He seems to be undergoing somewhat of a revival of appreciation these days.

Horace as a guide to modern life? Why not? We can find meaning in anything if we look hard enough. Robert Pirsig offered something similar, more than 40 years ago, when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The notion that within the microcosm lie all the answers to the questions of the macrocosm. A tea ceremony. A chalice and wafer. Our lives are filled with such symbolism.

My own journey involves weaving my yet rather thin strand of appreciation of classical philosophy – in particular the Stoics to whom I seem to gravitate more – into my tattered cloth of understanding life and What Really Matters. Most of my reading has not been terribly focused all of the time. In time, I trust, that meagre thread will be stronger, tougher.

Before Eyres, I had only modest, glancing association with Horace and other Latin poets. Looking through my bookshelves, I found only one collection of his works, a 1960 translation by Clancy I have only ever browsed in a desultory fashion. A few individual poems of his are found in anthologies I occasionally still read. But I’d not given him serious consideration (I have remedied my collection somewhat by ordering some additional books of his poetry, but they are not yet arrived).

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13 Ways to Kill Collingwood

13 Ways to Kill Your CommunityI found it! I stumbled across the secret manifesto The Block is using to destroy Collingwood. It’s in a book called “13 Ways to Kill Your Community” (Frontenac House, 2010) by Doug Griffiths and Kelley Clemmer. And pretty much everything in it outlines The Block’s not-so-secret plan to turn this community into rubbish.

I know, you’re going to object, “But Ian, you know The Block doesn’t read! How can something as big as a book be their secret manifesto when they won’t even read Municipal World or their own budget?”

Because, dear reader, the book was written in 2010, before they came to power. No doubt their handlers reduced its contents to simple sentences and one-syllable words, then wrote them out in crayon for The Block to digest before the 2014 election campaign. Trust me: once you see what’s in it, you will realize this is the path The Block have followed since they were elected.

Here for example, is the list of chapter headings:

  1. Don’t have quality water.
  2. Don’t attract business.
  3. Ignore your youth.
  4. Deceive yourself about your real needs or values.
  5. Shop elsewhere.
  6. Don’t paint.
  7. Don’t cooperate.
  8. Live in the past.
  9. Ignore your seniors.
  10. Reject everything new.
  11. Ignore outsiders.
  12. Become complacent.
  13. Don’t take responsibility.

See? This list precisely lays out what The Block have been doing since the election. And I’ll get to each in detail, a bit further along. Call it the Thirteen Commandments of The Block.

Of course you will also object, “But Ian, this list doesn’t cover The Block’s destruction of Collus PowerStream, the airport industrial development, or their sabotage of the hospital redevelopment. It doesn’t mention The Block’s secrecy, their sense of entitlement, or raising our taxes needlessly.”

And that’s sort of true, but contained in those chapters is the seed for all these activities. Plus, as the authors note, their list isn’t comprehensive. There are other ways to destroy your community, and – trust me – The Block is very ingenious in its efforts to turn everything they touch toxic. They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

And it was all laid out for them in this book!

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Reading The Histories

Greek hoplitesI hadn’t always wanted to read Herodotus. He has a mixed reputation among historians, often cited as an unreliable source, gossip monger or simply as a fantasist. Sure, he’s the “father of history” as Cicero called him (or at least of historical writing) and penned the earliest surviving work of non-fiction, but he often doesn’t get the respect that, say, Thucydides gets for his efforts (dry as they might be at times). Herodotus has even been called the ‘father of lies‘ by some modern historians.

Steve Donoghue noted:

Herodotus’s widely acknowledged vulnerability has always been his affection for thomata, the amazing marvel-stories that fill his account and are so scorned by Thucydides.

Yet, you cannot dismiss him lightly. Twenty-five hundred later, his voice still rings out: The Histories is an entertaining, sprawling masterpiece that is referred to and remarked on even today. As Edward Gibbon – the author of the great Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote,

Herodotus sometimes writes for children, and sometimes for philosophers.

I had downloaded Dan Carlin’s lengthy, three-part podcast series on the Persian Empire and its wars with Greece (King of Kings at Hard Core History; great, rambling stuff by the way) for a drive to and from Windsor, last month. I found his enthusiasm for Herodotus was contagious. I decided to buy a copy to see for myself. But which one?

Here’s the problem: translation. Which one(s) to choose of the dozen or more available? I say ones because I am often as likely to buy more than one translation of any work simply to compare them. And yes, I did buy two versions of The Histories (see below).

Almost everything I read written prior to about 1550 is a translation. Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Egyptian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Sumerian, Chinese… languages which I don’t speak. Which means I have to depend on the accuracy and style of the translator. And these past few years, I’ve been reading a lot more material from the classical era (i.e. Greek and Roman). So translation is a very important topic for me.

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The News: A User’s Manual

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10635865/The-News-by-Alain-de-Botton-review.html

The NewsAlain de Botton attempts in his small book to give us a guide, to provide some larger, meaningful context, to the news we get 24/7 these days. I don’t think he succeeds very well. In part it’s because he sees news as something grandiose, world-moving, world-shaking. I’m more familiar with the local aspect; a much smaller scale. It may not appear to have the majestic sweep of international news, but it isn’t any less relevant.

We are focused, collectively, on the US presidential campaigns and the interpersonal battles between Trump and Clinton. It’s a great drama of Homeric or Shakespearean proportion (albeit comical). But are they really any more important to us than, say, the confrontation between members of our own council – Deputy Mayor Saunderson, Councillors Doherty and Jeffrey in particular – and the local hospital board?

A local issue may seem small in comparison, but it certainly has more impact on our daily lives here. And the personalities and their comments are no less colourful.

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Wolf Hall reviewed

Thomas CromwellI have just finished watching the six-part BBC series, Wolf Hall, based on the two novels by Hilary Mantel. I am also about halfway through my reading of the first of the two, Wolf Hall (with Bring up the Bodies waiting in the bedside pile).

The series conflates the two novels into six one-hour episodes. Given the length of the novels (Wolf Hall is 650 pages itself), compacting them and retaining clarity, plot and drama is quite a feat.

Normally, I would argue for the written word over the adaptation. Any adaptation. As good as they may be, it is rare that a film or TV production can match the richness of any book. But in this instance, I find myself siding with the BBC’s version when recommending a choice to others. It is beautiful, well-crafted production, and visually stunning. But in truth, the two are synergistic.

(digression: the exacting approach of the BBC to history, to production, to costume and sets puts to shame the risible, American TV series, The Tudors).

For me, the period of the Tudors is the most intriguing, exciting, entertaining period of English history. In part it’s because the Renaissance bursts upon European consciousness and radically changes everything – politics, art, philosophy, literature, music, technology et al. And on its heels comes the Protestant Reformation, which rocks the very foundation of everything it touches. Everything was in flux.

It’s also in part because the Tudors themselves are larger-than-life characters in a giant, swirling drama that reaches into the nations and courts across Europe.

Unlike earlier periods, the Tudor era is remarkably well documented – the first period to benefit from the new printing technology that swept the continent. We know much more about the daily lives of the time than we do about previous eras. So it helps make the characters live in our imagination. Plus it is the era of Shakespeare, albeit a generation later than this series portrays.

And then there’s the story itself. Or rather, the many stories – plots and subplots, twists and turns – that arise. Henry VII’s rise from Bosworth to end the War of the Roses, Henry VIII’s unexpected ascension to the throne, and his marital adventures. Elizabeth I and her reign against all odds. Mary. Edward. Five monarchs in all. It’s just such rich stuff, compressed into a mere 120 years. You can’t fail to be drawn in.

Who among us doesn’t know at least the outline of the story of Henry VIII’s wives? Or the defeat of the Spanish Armada under Elizabeth? Mary Queen of Scots? The beheading of Anne?

Little wonder I continue to read and watch stories about them. They are endlessly entertaining.

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Fowler for the 21st Century

Fowler's latest editionOn the desk of every writer, every reporter, every editor, every PR director and every communications officer is a small library of reference books. A good dictionary (Oxford, American Heritage, Merriam Webster, Random House but gods forbid, never a generic Webster’s). A thesaurus (likely Roget’s). A style guide (CP for Canadians, or AP for Americans… Canadians likely have both).  A dictionary of quotations (because the print version is reliable as a source, and the Internet isn’t). And a usage guide.

That’s de rigeur for these professions, and the very minimum that they likely have in front of them every time they write or edit. To ignore these authorities or their guidance would be unprofessional and most professionals will have more of such titles than these basics.

There are many of the latter usage guides to choose from. Strunk and White. Partridge. Gowers. Flesch. Garner. Follett. Wallraff. Pinker. Dozens of books about grammar also fit the bill. The real language wonks have the encyclopedic Chicago Manual of Style (the latest 16th edition…). But Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage will likely hold pride of place. After all, it’s THE guide. We all have at least one copy of it. Writers and editors, that is.

Fowler’s has been the go-to guide for writers and editors since its first publication in 1926, now more a bit of linguistic paleontology than a working guide. It was revised in 1937. It’s still in print, though, nearly a century later. It was revised and edited by Ernest Gowers in the famous second edition, first published in 1965, revised in 1983 and reprinted many times. That’s the version most of my generation used and it’s still a workhorse. But it’s now more than 50 years old, and ,a bit fusty, but Gowers was also a canny wordsmith. As he wrote of Fowler in his introduction:

The truth is that the prime mover of his moralizing was not so much grammatical grundyism as the instincts of a craftsman. ‘Proper words in proper places’, said Swift, ‘make the true definition of a style.’ Fowler thought so too; and, being a perfectionist, could not be satisfied with anything that seemed to him to fall below the highest standard either in the choice of precise words or in their careful and orderly arrangement.

He knew, he said, that ‘what grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes’. ‘And yet’, he added, ‘the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. He has had his reward in his book’s finding a place on the desk of all those who regard writing as a craft, and who like what he called ‘the comfort that springs from feeling that all is shipshape’

Grundyism? Doesn’t that make you want to read it? If so you can find it online in PDF format. Or open your own, well-thumbed edition to page 19.

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Designing Type

Designing TypeKaren Cheng’s 2005  book, Designing Type, is the third of the recent books on typography I have received*. Of the three, it is the most technical, appealing to the typophile and design geek more than the average reader. But it’s also a reference for layout and graphic artists looking to choose a specific font for a work.

If your goal is to actually design a typeface, she helps appreciate the subtleties of design that differentiate and separate typefaces and letterforms. But it’s not a book about design.

Most books on type and typography focus on the result: working for the combination of readability and legibility that create an emotional, psychological and intellectual effect on the viewer. Cheng takes us on an almost microscopic tour of type, zooming in on the minute parts.

There is a prevailing theory that type should be ‘invisible’ in that the reader doesn’t see the face, simply benefits from its effect. And, I suppose, for the average reader that makes sense. Designers usually don’t want the narrative to be interrupted by a closer examination of the font. Writers don’t want readers to lose track of the plot or theme in order to puzzle over the lack or presence of serifs. But a lot of work and time goes into creating a typeface that accomplishes that goal.

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Everything Flows

Everything FlowsTonight’s book-with-wine discussion is about Vasily Grossman‘s novel, Everything Flows (New York Review Book, USA, 2009). It was his final work, and left unfinished at the time of his death, in 1964.

It’s not a difficult read, only 250 pages, but it isn’t easy. Readers unfamiliar with Soviet history, particularly the Stalin era, will not understand much of it. And it’s hardly a cheerful work. Not that everything Russian is a slit-your-wrist work, but it’s certainly Dostoevsky-like in its darkness.

Grossman was a Soviet war correspondent during WWII and travelled with the Red Army through Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk then into Eastern Europe, and finally Germany, where he covered the Battle for Berlin. He was the top war correspondent of the USSR and his articles were collected and translated in a 2006 book, A Writer at War. His pieces offer a very personal look at a side of the war we usually know more from military and official sources.

His mother was murdered by the Nazis in 1941, as they blitzed across the Ukraine. As a Jew, Grossman suffered Soviet racism and prejudices, increasing in the late 1940s as Stalin grew more paranoid and anti-Semitic. His artistic views were also molded by his war experiences and his ability to see the people in the carnage. He was among the first to see Treblinka and was one of the earliest to chronicle the Holocaust.

He was a good reporter and became a good novelist. He wrote honestly about what few of his contemporaries have dared write: life in Soviet Russia; the life of individuals slogging through an unrelenting system they didn’t fully understand, about their core of human will to survive. Honest, moving stuff. And for that he would become persona non grata, one among many artists whose work displeased the State.

After the war, he wrote two novels, both about the war: For a Just Cause (1952) and Life and Fate. The former was a fairly standard work for its day and was published. The latter has been compared to a modern War and Peace – it is huge, sweeping and complex. But because it was also critical of the Soviet government, and exposed some of the army’s atrocities as it advanced into enemy territory, it was too explosive for the then-Soviet censors (and the party’s chief ideologue, Mikhail Suslov). The government had it banned. Life and Fate would not be published until 1980, after his death.

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Frutiger vs Palatino

In a recent review of Sarah Hyndman’s book, Why Fonts Matter, I casually commented that,

You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set…

FrutigerThe point of which was not to single out those two typefaces as much as to suggest the debate between how readers respond to sans-serif and serif faces (respectively).

Fruitiger is a modern, humanist sans-serif type designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975. Palatino is a serif type designed by Hermann Zapf, in 1948, to simulate classical typefaces. I like and have used both.

PalatinoI’ve always been a staunch advocate of serif faces like Palatino for body copy in longer texts such as brochures, books, magazines. Everywhere type is dense, continuous, flowing I’ve preferred them.

Everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that serifs guide the reader better than their lack. Conventional wisdom has so dictated for centuries. Studies have supported the anecdotal conclusions.

But the two recent books I received (the other being Sarah Beier’s Reading Letters, also reviewed) are both set in sans-serif for their body. Hyndman’s is set in Franklin Gothic (designed by Morris Benton in 1902)*, and Beier’s in Ovink (designed by Beier herself, in 2011).

If type designers use what others in their field might argue is an unconventional choice, I figured I should pay attention.

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Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility

Reading Letters
The human brain is truly a remarkable machine.* We can see a bunch of lines and in that same brain turn them into an M and know it’s not a V or an N or a K or W. Yet M isn’t a ‘thing’ – it’s an abstract representation of a sound that itself has no concrete meaning outside the Mmmmm of meditation.

When you mentally assemble a bunch of other lines and sticks and squiggles, those sounds form a larger abstraction: a word: MOON. Now we have substance. And that can be used to create even larger collections of abstractions – sentences – that together we ascribe a greater meaning to: THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOON.

That’s a perfectly clear sentence. Nonsensical, yes, but within a tiny fraction of a second, your brain built all the bits and squiggles into a structured concept that made some sort of sense. You can read it; every word is clear and expresses something you can picture. That’s a remarkable feat of cognition that borders on magical.

But change just one letter, replace, say an O with an R and THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MORN seems much stranger, more nonsensical. Harder to imagine. THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOOT or THE MOAN even more so. Familiarity helped us build the first; the unfamiliar – just one letter changed – made us stop and think about it. But how is it that MOON, MORN and MOOT are clear to us, even when the sentence isn’t logical, but assemblies like REET, CABIT, DRAMFIBBLE aren’t?

What about acrasial, brabeum, crocitation? Nidifice, ovablastic, patration? Saburrate, tecnolatry, yelve? Those are actually all real words, once in use, but long since fallen from use, forgotten and mostly lost to the language.

You can read these words, you can pronounce them. They obey the rules of our language construction – unlike, say pkbrynzg or tlmrifvy – but they still don’t make sense. Your brain has no familiarity, no mental foothold that lets you make sense of them because they don’t conform.

But a lost word like snobographer you can break into bits – snob and grapher – and probably work out that it means someone who writes about snobs, even if you’ve never seen the word previously. It has familiar bits.

Sophie Beier‘s 2012 book, Reading letters: Designing for Legibility is almost the polar opposite of Sarah Hyndman’s book, reviewed last week. She looks at those little sticks and lines and squiggles and explores all the science and art behind how we make abstract symbols into meaning.

Continue reading “Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility”