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Subject: Re: text faces for books about "oppressed" groups
From: Rodger Whitlock <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:TYPO-L Discussion of Type and Typographic Design <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Tue, 3 Sep 1996 12:10:22 -0800

text/plain (90 lines)

On  3 Sep 96  Jean Lee Cole  wrought the electrons thusly:

>... I was wondering if any of you had any thoughts
> about the use of "classic" typefaces (Garamond, Baskerville,
> Caslon, and even American faces such as Goudy) for texts about
> minority groups or groups that have undergone oppression.  For
> example, using Baskerville for a book that outlines the various
> ways in which American Indians were screwed and screwed again
> by the U.S. government in the late-18th and 19th centuries, or
> using Caslon for a book about the British slave trade.

As a mere reader and typographical groupie and hanger-on, let
me respond.

It seems implicit in your remark that some typefaces partake of
an "oppressive" character. Perhaps this is true of certain
display faces, but I seriously doubt we can impute this
characteristic to the many text faces available. This reminds me
of the issue of Wagner's music: is it anti-Semitic or not? There
is absolutely no doubt that Wagner himself (like many people of
his time and place) was a rabid anti-Semite, but does this
characteristic show itself in, say, Das Gotterdammerung? My own
opinion is that Wagner's works (and others of the same period)
have an existence utterly independent of their composer and do
not have an anti-Semitic quality purely as a result of their
authorship and historico-cultural placement.

> I know that most readers will not notice, much less care, if a
> typeface characteristic of a dominant group is used for a text
> critical of it.

I think *no* reader is going to notice. Those who look at books
for the typography, not the content, *may* notice.

[Bringhurst quote snipped]

> The logical extension of these statements, it seems to me, is
> that good typography not only demands an *understanding* of
> historical and ideological relationships, but also requires
> responsible *applications* of this knowledge.  For example, I
> would not use Van Dijck for a book about Mussolini, or Joanna
> for a book about the Crusades.

Forgive me if I display my ignorance, but please explain your
rationale for these anti-choices. I have used both of these
faces and it seems to me that Van Dijck would be inappropriate
for nearly any text not closely focussed on the historic period
of its model, while Joanna (at least in its Roman style) is so
neutral and characterless that it would simply be out of place
where one wants an air of knightly feats of derring-do. Wasn't
Joanna designed as a newspaper face?

> But our press publishes many
> books about U.S. minority groups, minority groups in Latin
> America, and the often one-sided (in terms of raw power, both
> military and economic) relationship between the U.S. and Latin
> America, and I've had problems finding text faces that I feel
> are suitable for these subjects. (For some reason, there just
> aren't that many Chicana type designers out there. <irony>)
> Display faces are less of a problem, but I've had difficulties
> with them too.  Do any of you have any thoughts on the subject?
> Solutions? If any of you think this is not an important issue,
> how did you come to that conclusion?

I think the correct relationship should follow this logic: the
text before me is a modern text and therefore should be printed
in a good modern text typeface. On the other hand, if you are
reprinting a historic text, then a face reminiscent of its
historic context might be more appropriate. Yet even then, you
must be cautious about ending up with a parody. Should a book
about the history of Mexico be set as though it were done by a
job printer in an out of the way Mexican village, with
"damaged" type and a grand disregard for the canons of
typographic good taste? Of course not!

>...I think the problem I've outlined here transcends
> personal politics...

Your sensitivity is to be commended, but I feel you are seeking
an unnecessary refinement. Far better to concentrate on the
readability of the page, the color of the type, its texture. As
an academic publisher, many of your books are (by any ordinary
standard) going to be dull, boring, and dry, and you need to
make sure the reader, while struggling with the content, is not
also having eye trouble. Please consider the wide variety of
faces used in Penguin paperbacks (most of them from Monotype).

Rodger Whitlock

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