I used to spend hours every week browsing in bookstores, new and used. I'd even think nothing of devoting an entire day to doing so. In recent years, all that has changed. Instead, I do a lot of browsing online and have a good idea of what I hope to find before I set foot in a bookstore. I followed that procedure yesterday on a visit to University Bookstore here in Seattle, but since I didn't find a single one of the books I specifically looked for, I ended up spending a couple of hours browsing instead and thus buying a lot of books I hadn't given a though to in advance, just as I used to. I was surprised to find on the shelves a number of books from the early and middle parts of the 20th century I knew of but had never actually read, all newly printed complete with modern new prices, too.
After I bought them and sat down in the cafe with an iced tea and my booty, however, was that though these books were all newly printed, they had not been set in modern fonts, but simply reproduced as if they were nothing more than digitally printed pdfs of the original pages. (I suspect that's exactly how they were produced.) It would have reduced the cost to the publisher considerably to do, I suppose. To my annoyance, in two cases the books don't even have the grace of showing the date of the reissue, presumably on the pretense that the copyright date is the only date that matters. Since the book is not, of course, being sold as a part of the original print run half a century (or more) earlier, this pretense leaves me feeling deprived of data about the book's publication history. Have these books been in continuous print all this time? Or is it just that the changing technology of printing and its economics has made a no-muss, no-fuss reissue economically feasible?
Does it sound as though I'm complaining? I guess I am. I will admit it: I find many of the older fonts uncomfortable to read. That isn't to say I won't read them when I have to. Back in the 1970s I read hundreds of books printed in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, most of them florid or even Gothic, fonts that, for instance, turned esses into effs. I've always been willing to read old books set in old fonts when that's the only choice for books I really want to read. Just last year, for instance, inspired by a chapter in Alexis Lothian's thesis, I read a pdf of Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett's late ninetheenth-century New Amazonia that took considerable effort to read, partly because the pdf reproduction is rather poor, partly because the font was tiresome-- and then typed the whole thing out it in preparation for having it typeset for Aqueduct's Heirloom Books series. Most older fonts just can't be read by an optical character reader, and so they have to be keyed in by hand. Seeing these graphically reproduced reissues, it occurred to me that unlike all those publishers, neither Kath nor I would ever have thought of merely reproducing the pdf of the Corbett novel (or any other) book. Apparently, book design and ease of reading matter to us tremendously. Now that I think of it, I recall, in the first months of our preparing to start Aqueduct, Kath's intense interest in choosing our house fonts, all based on her own experiences as a reader-- and I also her complaints over the years about various fonts (of which I had previously been less conscious than she).
Clearly, fashions in fonts change. You have only to look at books published in different decades to see that. One of the reprinted books mentioned above, one with a 1951 copyright date and the statement "Vintage Books are published by Alfred A. Knopf and Random House, Inc." and no other date after that, apart from a bio of the author which mentions his death and two awards won post-1951 that Vintage must have added in a later reprint that the copyright page does not bother to mention, has a font one never sees now, though it's a font I would have found familiar in the 1970s. (Don't ask me for its name: there are very few fonts I can actually identify by name.) I find myself wondering whether the fonts I find the most readable now would have seemed as readable to me in the 1970s as they do to me now. Are publishers actually using increasingly readable fonts (perhaps due to better and better design), or is readability an illusion created by changes in taste? Fashions do affect how we view clothing, shoes, and hair styles (not to mention home, car, and book cover designs).
It seems I have a subject of conversation when next I see the one font-designer I actually know. And who knows, maybe neurobiologists will someday serve up new evidence shedding light on the question, particularly given the interest they've been taking in investigating what happens in people's brains when they read different sorts of things and finding perceptible differences in the brain between reading printed and electronic texts.