Saturday, January 24, 2009

On Colophons

After the end of a book—beyond the bibliography, index, and other afterwordage—you might find a note about the book’s production. It will probably tell you the name of the typeface used in the book; it may even go on to extol the typeface’s qualities and pedigree.

For example, from the hardcover version of Thomas Hine’s Populuxe, “A Note on the Type” informs us that the book’s choice of typeface, Primer, “makes general reference to Century—long a serviceable type, totally lacking in manner or frills of any kind—but brilliantly corrects its characterless quality.”

Or, from the paperback of Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers, we not only learn that its typeface is Adobe Garamond but also that the typeface’s namesake, Claude Garamond, “gave to his letters a certain elegance and feeling of movement that won their creator an immediate reputation and the patronage of Francis I of France.”

Once you’re up to speed on a book’s typeface, there may be more to know: “The paper, which is Glatfelter Laid, from the Spring Grove Mill, is of archival quality and acid-free.” (Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, version 2.5, paperback)

Most books, especially paperbacks, do not have such notes. However, in the technology field, books from the publisher O’Reilly often have an extended “colophon.” For example, the colophon in Sal Mangano’s XSLT Cookbook details the software and fonts used to produce different parts of the book, profiles the red mullet fish that adorn the cover, and credits the person who wrote the colophon!

Another O’Reilly book, Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation, has a colophon with the final word on colophons:

Page numbers were hand-carved, based on a Dutch interpretation of a sketch of reproductions of a famous 13th-century Chinese monograph series....[The ink is] stored in the finest French hardwood kegs, which are wrapped in a layer of Egyptian velvet and left to age for centuries while a secret tribe of the world’s finest chorally trained children bless them with chants of salvation for all those who read words in colophons written in this ink....

Before you go, know that I, anonymous colophon writer, have spared the human race from certain extinction dozens of times through use of my varied colophonic powers. Out of respect you should always read colophons—you never know what you might find.

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