After ampersands, entity references

Sam reads his trackbacks — for interesting reactions on my last post, see his comment and the comments on his comment.

I haven’t even mentioned that my blog title (as defined in the blogging software I’m using) used to be

david ascher’s blog

(which is supposed to render with a curly right single quotation mark, the way it would in a proper book). That worked fine on the website, but the use of the same variable value in the RSS feed messed up blogrolls and aggregators everywhere (well, not everywhere, I’m not that popular). Jon Udell’s page, for example, lists my blog as “david ascherâ��s blog”. How frustrating to find out not only that my desire for typographic correctness resulted in typographic monstrosities, but, worse, that undoing the damage is much, much harder than doing it in the first place.

I had a job once producing some books — transforming “typewritten manuscripts” in Word files (no, really: huge tables were laid out with “space-space-space” alignment) authored by archaoelogists not too savvy about markup into bound full-color books that my employer would then compare to those published by real publishers.

That job fed a latent obsession for typesetting, which I’ve maintained for years (with the help of slow periods in graduate school). At this point, it’s heartbreaking to admit that pragmatism means that I have to give up on the pursuit at typographic perfection, simply because the tools get in the way so much. ASCII, XML, WordPress, markdown/textile, all of them throw roadblocks to proper typesetting of punctuation.

I’m not sure whether it helps or hurts to read books like The Elements of Typographic Style, or to have had another job trying to enforce the OUP’s rules regarding orphans and widows. Those tasks force you to realize that typesetting is truly a craft, and that automation will never really be able to replace the expert craftsman. Still, there’s real value to having mass-production of beautiful goods, even if few end up in museum pieces.


  1. The Elements of Typographic Style used to be my bible. However, it is so compelling I think it does warp people’s brains a little bit. People can’t see the forest for the trees.

    His main point is that design exists to honor content. However, with so many rules to learn, it is easy to be seduced into thinking oneself a typographic aesthete simply by knowing them. Badly designed pages become a pain to read, and even ones that follow all the rules evoke little pleasure.

    I too have labored to get curly quotes into online formats. Then I realized that for most online readers, the difference between a curly quote and a straight quote is one pixel.

    Beyond technical issues I think Bringhurst’s renaissance revival model has an obsolete model of the author. He imagines someone who has great control over the final product, and who can spare no effort to produce a work of lasting value.

    This is completely unlike how most of the prose I want to read (and write!) works. Dozens of intermediaries are required to make a single glyph appear. The experience of reading online can be made more pleasant, but never raised to the art form to which Bringhurst aspires.

    Furthermore, I greatly enjoy reading primary source news, written the day of the event, from someone whose grasp of English grammar is shaky. So I’m doing more of the work to make the information valuable (or even beautiful) for me. Perhaps we need a model that looks at design as a more participatory act.


  2. Agreed that Bringhurst’s model is somewhat archaic as seen from the perspective of the wired (or is that ‘wireless’?) world. Still fun, though. I particularly enjoyed the extremist bit where he rants about how it’d be silly to typeset a book written by a female jew with a font designed by a dead white male (or some equivalent mismatch). I don’t see it to be a book about writing or design, more a book about the aesthetics of book layout. And I think that our aesthetic sensibility evolves very slowly, so “non-postmodern” approaches seem appropriate.

    On the importance of one-pixel differences in curly quotes: I’ve found that exposure to knowledge of typesetting details like that is full of consequences. At this point, if I read copy that is poorly typeset, it stops me from reading the content as such — I get annoyed (even if only for a second) at the ‘flaw’. The same sentiment is echoed by the author of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” and her followers.

    I disagree with the implication (which you probably don’t intend!) that good prose needs many participants. While much of what I read is not the product of a single mind, much of the best prose I read is. Some of the best authors are obsessive about everything that touches their writing, and it’s not an accident. I’m thinking of people like Tufte, Knuth, and, I suspect, many novelists.


  3. I get annoyed (even if only for a second) at the ‘flaw’.

    But isn’t that a tiny tragedy? You’re ambiguous on that point.

    I don’t think we have a hard choice here, between blissful ignorance of design and such distracting annoyances. The annoyance is due to misperceiving design as a set of rules to follow. It is impossible to think this way without judging people, and the rules become mere shibboleths.

    Instead we should revere the act of communication, and look at design knowledge as a means to that end. With that attitude, I find the ‘static’ mostly clears up, and I don’t have to lobotomize myself.

    See the quote on swordsmanship in the first pages of The Elements of Typographic Style. That’s one of my favorites.

    I disagree with the implication (which you probably don’t intend!) that good prose needs many participants.

    Oh yeah. I too disagree with the thing I didn’t say. 😉

    I just mean, that in bits per day, I personally read more email, blogs, online media, and software documentation than great novels. And for these cases, I am happy to sacrifice typography for other benefits.


  4. I don’t see it as an either-or choice between good typography and enjoying blogs. I enjoy hastily written scribbles as much as the next person (actually, probably more than most!). But that doesn’t mean that I can’t take extra pleasure in something which is beautifully written, designed, typeset, composed, structured, or generally “put together”.

    I’m happy to live with the occasional annoyances (“tiny tragedies” seems a bit much) in exchange for the occasional, greater joys that accompanies the feeling that comes with recognizing a good design.

    Where is the intrinsic clash in valuing (“revering” to use your phrase) design and communication both?


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