July 23, 2013

The descent of book design

I have just enjoyed reading John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk, but I was troubled by some aspects of the book design.

First, the title font seemed incongruous, evoking 1890s art nouveau rather than the 1630s and following decades of the book’s setting, particularly when used as large drop caps after the floral “woodcut” initial caps of the excerpts of “The Book of John Saturnall” that precede each chapter. The opening page of each chapter also sports the chapter’s running title, which is unusual and looks like a mistake, since the large drop cap indicates that it is an opening, not a running, page.

Second, The drop caps are set as if by a word processor, i.e., by lazily clicking “Drop Cap” in the layout program without regard to design or readability.

There were also some other glaring typesetting and layout errors, though overall the text itself was well set. Finally, the dust cover curled so badly that it had to be taken off while reading (which some people do anyway, but more usually to preserve the cover of an old book, not one that’s brand new).

Then I realized my mistake: I had bought the U.S. edition, forgetting to seek out the original British edition first. Bloomsbury first published the book in the U.K., and Grove published it in the U.S. Following are the first few pages of each edition side by side. The Bloomsbury images are screen captures from Amazon UK, and the Grove images are my own scans. (Although the Bloomsbury drop caps do not conform to the modern ideal, they are actually true to how books were set in the late 17th century, which those pages successfully evoke. The Grove edition sets these sections just like the rest of the text, only ragged right.)

Note, the British paperback appears to use the Grove edition, which suggests the driving aesthetic behind the latter: to be trade paperback ready. Note the larger text font, ready for photo-reduction. And the gaudy cover.

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Apart from its degraded vessel, John Saturnall’s Feast is a compelling fantasy about the power of cooking, representing alchemical wizardry and creativity to woo, mock, and sustain in lean times as well as flush. And ultimately to cross barriers, to subvert orders, to assert an older magic, older gods, a natural order.