[Humanist] 22.509 making beautiful books

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Feb 9 07:49:10 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 509.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 07 Feb 2009 11:10:03 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: making beautiful books

In the Times Literary Supplement for 7 October 1983, an interesting 
juxtaposition. At the bottom of page 1102 are to be found two articles, 
one on word-processing (note the hyphen), the other on the design and 
production of books.

"Processing authors' words", to the left, details what we should look 
out for as professional writers now that we can afford word-processing 
software, including (mirabile dictu) software that can be adjusted to 
the individual's requirements, such as Old English words in a 
spell-checker. It looks in hope to the possibility of new publishing 
arrangements so that technical problems in getting text from one 
microcomputer to another machine can be solved (at the time there were 
no standards for floppy disc size and format, at least not in the UK). 
It expresses considerable enthusiasm for generic markup so that text can 
be organized with codes "whose typographic meaning does not have to be 
fixed until just before the text is filmset".

"Design for living books", to the right, discusses the poor excuses we 
were making then for our badly designed books, particularly our habit of 
attributing poor quality products to high tech methods and to economic 
hard times. The author, Tom Fenton, concludes: "Our technology is 
limited only by the demands we place on it. If standards of book 
production today are degenerate, and they are, the reason lies not with 
our technology but with us. It is not because we have lost the ability 
to do better, but because we do not want to.... And the traditions of 
good book production are not a matter of adherence to old methods and 
materials. Rather they are a matter of attitude, of using every means at 
our disposal to achieve excellence."

Remarkably, all the technical improvements contemplated by the first 
article have come to pass, as you will have noticed -- with a number of 
consequences not contemplated then, at least not by the authors A. C. S. 
Bullock and R. V. Sabido. How well have we done by Tom Fenton's 
yardstick, I wonder? I keep thinking of F. R. Leavis' characteristically 
gloomy attack on the "professional subhumanities of computerial 
addiction" (in a TLS piece 1 January 1970), by which he means the power 
we give our technologies to obscure the human ends they should be serving.


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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