Review of "The Elements of Typographical Style"

The Elements of Typographical Style, by Robert Bringhurst. ISBN 088179132-6.

The first qualification for a book on typography is that it should be beautiful. The first qualification for any book about books is that it should be a joy to read. Bringhurst has succeeded in both aims.

The book is aimed at the dedicated novice rather than at the expert, although anyone who assimilates all that Bringhurst has to say will know and understand more than many who consider themselves experts. It is punctuated by pithily stated typographical maxims (examples: Add extra lead before and after block quotations; Start with a single typographic family; Avoid overpunctuating lists), and off these 129 simple maxims Bringhurst hangs 350 pages of typographical wisdom.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on "Choosing and combining type" and the last chapter, a 70-page ramble through some of Bringhurst’s favourite typefaces. Quote: Baskerville, Helvetica, Palatino and Times Roman, for example -- which are four of the most widely available typefaces -- are four faces with nothing to offer one another except public disagreement.

You should not expect to agree with all of Bringhurst’s pronouncements. He doesn’t expect you to either. If you use this book as a guide, by all means leave the road when you wish. That is precisely the use of a road: to reach individually chosen points of departure.

Bringhurst is a poet as well as a typographer. His book is well written in two senses: reading it is a pleasure, and he gets his message across clearly.

What is there to dislike? The proportions of the book, although they work well aesthetically, are a nuisance practically. It’s too narrow to sit open without something forcing it so. I didn’t care for Bringhurst’s apparent conviction that the best proportions of page and textblock are to be found scattered through various geometrical figures (as, say, the lengths of three kinds of diagonal in a regular octagon). These are minor quibbles.