Saturday, December 31, 1994

The Times They Are A-Changing

Chuck Bigelow's "who will write the most stupid thing on comp.fonts" contest inspired this, written in December 1994. Don Hosek published it in his typography magazine, Serif.

I don't actually agree with most of this, but it's difficult to write a song with the message "stick to established traditions" when parodying Dylan.

My copy of Simon and Garfunkel's Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. got a good workout while I was writing this. For some reason Simon and Garfunkel have been a channel for me: in high school I wrote "Roger Sage and the New York Times" to "Scarborough Fair". And, obviously, it was also related to "Times." This is either a weird coincidence or a profound insight into my innermost soul.

The Times they are a-changing

(Apologies to Mr. Zimmerman)

Come type-aholics wherever you roam
Look at old Times Roman sitting on its throne
And accept it that soon you'll be sick of the drone
Of old Stanley Morison's makings
Still, you can do better than ITC Stone
For the Times, they are a-changing

Come draftsmen and artists who calligraph with the pen
Break in your nibs now, the chance won't come again
The type balls and wheels are no longer in spin
Now lasers and inkjets are aiming
The Linotypes have ceased their hot noisy din
And the Times, they are a-changing

Come Berthold, Adobe, Hell-Linotype all:
Don't be too surprised if we break your cabal
The whole design world we've worked to enthrall
Your efforts we are upstaging
It may look to you like just chicken-scratch scrawl
But the Times, they are a-changing

Come old-fashioned designers all over the land
And don't rasterize what you can't understand
Carson and Deck are beyond your command
Hermann Zapf is rapidly aging
We're progressing beyond Carolingian hand
And the Times, they are a-changing

The line it is drawn, the metal is cast
Yet laser and film are proved to be fast
Though old-timers often have been struck aghast
At the poor amateurs masquerading
We've all broken through the typographer's caste
For the Times, they are a-changing

For the Times, they are a-changing

The penultimate paragraph used to begin as follows:

Come old-fashioned designers all over the land
And don't criticize what you can't understand
Segura and Carson are beyond your command

I think it's better this way, and not inconsistent with what it might have been like in 1994 had I thought of it. (No change in preference is intended by referring to Mr. Deck instead of Mr. Segura -- the change merely improves the meter.)

Saturday, April 2, 1994

Libraries and Community

Every year or so I seem to find myself on a library binge. One spring break in college I went to Vancouver, 900 miles away from my home in the Bay Area, to search for information on Ontario poltiics for the paper that would complete my BA degree. I found lots of information, but never wrote the paper. Several years ago, while unemployed, I visited six or seven local libraries searching out folk music I hadn't heard before. Now I'm working on my paper again with a different topic, and I've been going from library to library searching for information.

There's something shared about a library. Bookstores are sanitary places, full of virgin pulp straight from the letterpresses. Each book is like a medicine capsule, beckoning with its brightly colored exterior, yet ultimately sterile.

Libraries are different. Each time you take a book down from a library shelf, you share an experience with the patrons who came before and will come after. Pulling down that book is a ritual experience -- entering into a shared community with the others who've read it.

Of course, we all know the horror stories of anti-social acts in our shared community. We've all had the experience of finding an needed book unreadable -- pages ripped out, drenched in coffee or soda, or covered with meaningless underlines or distracting streaks of color. But there is also the joy of finding a pointed comment on a post-it or a lightly-penciled note explaining a difficult passage. Like the difference between graffiti and a mural, the difference is in the author's intent and the reaction sought from the audience.

And occasionally there is a scrap or note not intended for the community, but left in the book accidentally, or incidentally. Once, in an old computer programming book, I found a teletype printout from ancient printers that have been shut down for years. Just the worn type on the green-bar paper brought back memories of my own experiences with the old minicomputer.

In a book on downtown development from the San Jose State University Library, I came across a note: the phone number of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, left on a folded sheet of spiral-bound notebook paper. Like an amateur detective, one's mind races to fill in the blanks. Why Marin County, 70 miles from San Jose? A feminine hand. A section of paper torn out at the bottom, as if to be used in another note elsewhere. There aren't enough clues to this mystery to begin to solve it. But new mysteries are available on every shelf.

These experiences are usually ephemeral. One, though, has stayed with me. While researching the French Revolution for a history class, I discovered two different notes, in two different books, written in the same hand. I knew that I was following in the footsteps of some prior student, likely from the same class in some previous year. It's not really so surprising -- after all, class projects change little from year to year. Nonetheless, it made an impresson. To go into a building with a million volumes and pick two with the same history is a powerful experience, however obvious the explanation. It underscored for me the shared quality of libraries.

Often libraries seem the most alone of places -- forbidden to speak, one daydreams quietly as one slips among the stacks. But other hands have traveled before us. City planners and architects talk about creating community, but the anonymous forebears whose traces I find in books have created as much community as any town square or public market.

Postscript (January, 1998): It must not have occurred to me to discuss used bookstores. Used books have more character than new books, but the number of previous readers is much smaller than in a library, and -- what with inscriptions and so on -- much less anonymous. And occasionally they're not anonymous at all. If Shirley Daffin is out there, searching the web for her name, she'll remember purchasing a copy of Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans at Crescent City Books, 204 Chartres St., New Orleans, on May 20, 1995 at 3:10pm. The total cost was $20.70 and she paid with her Mastercard, the number of which is on the slip left in the book. I guess it's a good thing that the expiration date has passed.