22 April 2005

On the Page

A couple of short notes and then a longer rant today. First up, there are a couple of interesting articles on different aspects of the influence of nonbooks on book sales. In the Village Voice, there's a piece on so-called "litblogs," with the usual misleading subheadline that has little or nothing to do with either its overt text or its subtext (one of the reasons I seldom read the VV). Leaving aside the faint praise for some particularly ignorant bloggers—not all of the ones mentioned, by any means, but some of them make one wonder whether some children should be left behind—the article is a classic example of journalism that tries to create its own subject and bootstrap itself into significance. Surprisingly, today's Independent ultimately reaches much the same conclusion. That might be the first recorded instance of the VV and Independent agreeing on anything. What these really point out is that there is a serious disjuncture in the business structure in the publishing industry; like that's a surprise. In American constitutional terms, too many people are substituting a motivation for allowing the public access to important ideas (profit from a limited monopoly) with the purpose of doing so. But then, my frequent objections to people who confuse means and ends should make that particular comment less than surprising.

Then there's this brief article (sorry, I couldn't resist) on the porn-star lawyer. There are just so many cheap shots available here that I wouldn't know where to start, so I won't. The comment from the California Bar leaves its standards sort of naked, though.

Last, the rant. This one is pointed at a different kind of publishing ignorance. It's a kind of publishing ignorance reinforced by Microsoft and Apple, by most contemporary printer manufacturers (but largely blameable upon Hewlett-Packard), and by inadequate research and sheer laziness.

I come not to praise Times New Roman, but to bury it.

I feel badly for Professor Ribstein. His recently published article at the Berkeley Business Law Journal, "Why Corporations?", looks interesting, even to a non-corporate-law type like me. I obtained a downloaded copy. I can't read it. It's set unhyphenated, justified, in a particularly light impression from Times New Roman. At a finer level, the leading is all wrong, the margins are inconsistent (for example, the footnote separator extends beyond both the left and right margins), widows and orphans abound… in other words, someone took a Microsoft Word document, changed the margins, added a couple of headers, and left all of the other defaults alone. It tries as hard as it can to be illegible. That's not the author's fault; it's the journal's fault.

Times New Roman is a newspaper font. It was designed for the Times (the real one, not the one in New York) in the 1930s for use in narrow, multicolumn, hyphenated articles that would almost all be less than 1000 words. It is simply inappropriate for longer works; for wide columns; for unhyphenated text (although that's a poor decision in itself); in multiple sizes in the same piece (e.g., footnotes and body text). I'd gladly shoot the moron(s) who made it the default in Windows, because it's also a terrible font for on-screen reading. Apple is no better; Apple enshrined Times New Roman as the default serif proportional typeface with its LaserWriters. There is almost no document that a target user of Word (or WordPerfect, or whatever) can create for which Times New Roman is a good, let alone the best, choice of typeface.

What's really sad is that there's quite a bit of guidance on proper typography—both at the font level and in document design—easily available from courts. The Seventh Circuit provides, for free on its website, several well-considered documents concerning design of legal documents for easier reading, including the excellent "Painting with Print" (PDF). There's really no excuse for even students in the Ninth Circuit not being at least aware of these resources. Doing better wouldn't even require the use of a professional designer. The BBLJ could merely have reverse-engineered the template used for US Supreme Court opinions, which if seldom models of linguistic clarity are about as good as one finds for typographical clarity—and use resources included along with Microsoft Word (and, for that matter, WordPerfect), so there shouldn't be any whining about having to spend $70 on a nonstandard font. But it didn't. And, sad to say, it's far from the worst offender.

I'm not a professional graphic artist. I have, however, done extensive work with publication design and learned from some very, very good professional graphic artists. I can also read; and if I wasn't aware of the Seventh Circuit's resources, which have been mentioned in more places than I can convienently count, I could have gone over to the university library and checked out a copy of Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Design. The BBLJ's failure to do so is keeping me from accessing what looks to be a useful resource (at least until I run it through a converter here, and lose all the pagination so I can't cite what I can read).

At least the BBLJ hasn't sunk to the level of a Certain Overblown Law Journal in publishing thinly disguised propaganda pieces in favor of creationism. This was a defect of form, not of substance. But when one is starting out as a new publication, one cannot afford defects in form.