Prose and Witches

I am, as I write this, pur­chas­ing Bringhurst’s The Ele­ments of Typo­graphic Style, because I can­not remem­ber the last time I read prose with such delight. Bringhurst com­ments on the typog­ra­phy of an 18th cen­tury British anti-witchcraft bill:

The func­tion of typog­ra­phy, as I under­stand it, is nei­ther to fur­ther the power of witches nor to bol­ster the defences of those, like this unfor­tu­nate par­lia­men­tar­ian, who live in ter­ror of being tempted and deceived. The sat­is­fac­tions of the craft come from elu­ci­dat­ing, and per­haps even ennobling, the text, not from delud­ing the unwary reader by apply­ing scents, paints and iron stays to empty prose. But hum­ble texts, such as clas­si­fied ads or the tele­phone direc­tory, may profit as much as any­thing else from a good typo­graph­i­cal bath and a change of clothes. And many a book, like many a war­rior or dancer or priest of either sex, may look well with some paint on its face, or with a bone in its nose.

May we all aspire to such prose, filled with sur­prise, dash­ing with the momen­tum and grace of a skier. And, the kicker:

Typog­ra­phy is to lit­er­a­ture as musi­cal per­for­mance is to com­po­si­tion: an essen­tial act of inter­pre­ta­tion, full of end­less oppor­tu­ni­ties for insight or obtuseness…Typography at its best is a slow per­form­ing art, wor­thy of the same informed appre­ci­a­tion that we some­times give to musi­cal per­for­mances, and capa­ble of giv­ing sim­i­lar nour­ish­ment and plea­sure in return.

Isn’t that what we’ve always wanted to say about great per­for­mances and their power to reveal great compositions?

Posted: November 5th, 2011
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