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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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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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.

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