Monday, 30 September 2013

A Life in Letters - Here and Now, Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

Here and Now, Letters 2008 - 2011 by Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

I spend a lot of time researching what to read next. In fact, I think I spend more time discovering new books on various themes than actually reading. Despite this controlled and pre-planned approach to my reading I do occasionally read books (often rather good ones) which I come across in a more serendipitous manner. 

Here and Now belongs to this category of serendipitous finds. This book attracted my attention while I was browsing the 800s section (literature) in my local library. Faber and Faber did a great job of producing this collection of letters: it is a lightweight hardback book, with tasteful portraits of each author on the cover and it has wonderful chocolate brown end-papers (my favourite colour). As this is a collection of letters many pages feature quite a lot of formatting at the top of the page: date, address, Dear John or Dear Paul.  I liked the fact that the pages had been arranged with balance in mind by placing the authors' names (verso page) and the title of the book (recto page) at the foot of the page. 

The physical appearance of the book encouraged my to pick it up, but beyond aesthetics, I didn't know anything about it or have any preconceived ideas about what I would find inside, when I checked the book out. I have not read any of Paul Auster's writing and although I have read Disgrace I used to think that J.M. Coetzee was a woman, not a man (I also used to think that A.S. Byatt was a man and not a woman)!

I found the collection very readable indeed, and I think the diverse topics discussed in Auster's and Coetzee's letters would appeal to many people. Among other topics, they exchange ideas about sports (the concept of losing in individual games versus team games. Take singles tennis, for example, the majority of entrants in a tournament will be losers and not winners), the financial downturn and capitalism, film, how to deal with literary criticism and critics, the challenge of the digital age in novel writing,
"You say that you are quite prepared to write novels in which people go around with personal electronic devices. I must say I am not. The telephone is about as far as I will go in a book, and then reluctantly. Why? Not only because I'm not fond of what the world has turned into, but because if people ("characters") are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and nonverbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up. Dialogue in the full sense of the term, just isn't possible over the phone." [From J.M. Coetzee to Paul Auster April 2011).
And, discussions on the degradation of culture since the late 1970s, early 1980s (although, don't most people over the age of about 55 make a similar lament?).

In addition to containing interesting discussion on a varied list of topics, I also found the letters quite touching. The authors express delight at the opportunity of meeting each other in person at literary festivals (to be in the same place, at the same time is quite a feat as Paul Auster lives in New York City and J.M. Coetzee lives in Australia) and on return home from their meetings they say how much they enjoyed being able to spend some time together. The warmth that shines through their letters makes me want to pick up my pen and write an old-fashioned letter to a friend.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Book Art at the Library

A couple of days ago, I stumbled across an interesting exhibition at Bath Central Library. For the second time the Library is holding its annual Recycle an Ex-Library Book Competition. Participating members of Bath and North East Somerset Libraries  were given an ex-library book, which was ear-marked for recycling, and tasked with turning the unwanted book into a work of art.

The entries are currently being displayed at the Central Library until 24th September. Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to vote for their favourite piece from each category: under 12s, 12-17 years olds, over 18s and group entry. It was quite a challenge to pick my favourite as I didn't know whether to focus on the best piece as regards paper-crafting skill or original concept.

Maybe some book lovers shudder at the thought of cutting, pasting and excising book pages, but the books in the exhibition are books which did not sell at library book-sales and whose ultimate end would have been the pulping machine. A piece of art, whether created by a child at school or by a professional artist is usually treasured and, to me, it seems a fitting new life for a book which would otherwise be discarded.

What do you think about creating works of art from unused books?

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

There is a serendipitous satisfaction in enjoying a book which found you rather than you searching it out. A while ago I was at the library browsing in the section where I expected to find the 745.6 classmark (calligraphy). Even though my local library holds just four or five books on calligraphy I was surprised that I couldn't find any of the books on the shelf even though the catalogue said they were in the library*. Just My Type jumped out at me with it's striking cover and subtitle, "A Book About Fonts" and although it wasn't what I was looking for I thought I would give it a try.

Before reading this book I can't say that I thought about fonts much apart from choosing which fonts to use for my blog (the main script is Arial - not much thought there then, as this is the font I use for nearly all my computer produced texts - and the blog title and post titles are in Dancing Script which Google Fonts advise using "when you want a friendly, informal and spontaneous look". I wasn't aiming for spontaneity, just a contrast and, yes, I am a sucker for cheesy brush script pretending it's hand written and not really type.

Simon Garfield's survey of fonts deals with: the history of popular typefaces: Garamond, Gill Sans, Times New Roman, Baskerville, biographies of famous type designers: Lucas De Groot, Adrian Frutiger, Eric Gill, Matthew Carter, Margaret Calvert (the designer of Calvert, the font used on the Tyne and Wear Metro), the history and job of type foundries and how the innovations of the digital age have changed the nature of type designing and our relationship with type, "Computers have rendered us all gods of type, a privilege we could never have anticipated in the age of the typewriter."

This book made me look around a lot more at signs (road signs, street signs, shop signs) and think about the form of what I was looking at and not just the content.  I have also been paying more attention to the form of the books and magazines that I read. I picked up ten books from my shelves at home and was disappointed to find that only three out of these ten books credited the font on the copyright page. The fonts used were: Giovanni Book (designed by Robert Slimbach in 1989), Granjon an old-style serif typeface from 1928-29 and a similar typeface, Ehrhardt from 1938. I also had a look at my Oxford English Dictionary which uses Swift (a sans-serif from 1985) and Arial (1982) presumably for legibility.

I haven't read any of Simon Garfield's work before, but based on my experience with this book - an entertaining, witty and fascinating introduction to a subject about which I knew very little - I hope to read more of his work. He is a rather prolific non-fiction author, so there are lots of other titles from which I can choose.

Oh interrobang, how had I never seen or heard of you before? Okay, it's not a font, just a single character, but the interrobang is one of the fun little factoids that I will be taking away from Just My Type.  If you too want to represent quizzical surprise then input Alt + 8253 in Microsoft Word.

* The calligraphy books had been moved to a separate Arts and Crafts section in the area of the library which houses the "popular" books: Home and Gardens, Family, Health, Cooking. I hate it when the library is arranged like this; please, when using Dewey just start at the beginning and progress in a systematic order, it makes it so much easier to find items.