I’ve long been a fan of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, director of Gates of Heaven, Mr. Death, and The Fog of War. He always struck me as someone with a blogger’s sensibility before I could have imagined calling it that—a penchant for certain incidental and yet, on second glance, fiercely crucial associations that accreted in his documentaries to make them fully realized and elegantly misshapen things. The Thin Blue Line is probably the film that made his career, but I have a deep soft spot for 1997’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. This was, on the surface, four documentaries in one: about a lion tamer, a topiarist, an expert on hairless mole-rats, and an M.I.T. robot designer. The way Morris managed to combine the four without breaking a sweat, building a network of connections between heretofore unconnected concerns, had a beautiful stoner ripple effect without annoying stoner didacticism.
For a while there film seemed to be the best medium for that kind of free-association. But now we have hyperlinks, god bless ’em, and Errol Morris has been blogging for the New York Times for more five years now, which is as it should be. His most recent essay, in two parts, is about the authority of typefaces—particularly, in Morris’ analysis, Baskerville. His examination here is both statistic-geeky and iconoclastic, and ranges from the obvious to the crazily eclectic. Yes, all but the most design-impaired among us know that Comic Sans is a face with little or no dignity (and we should all give second thoughts to eating at a restaurant where the menu is printed in Papyrus, a fact Morris ought to have brought up at least as a public courtesy). But according to his (vaguely skewed, but this isn’t a matter of life or death) survey, the most authoritative, believable typeface around isn’t Times New Roman or Georgia or any of those other heavy-hitters, not to mention outlier sans-serifs Helvetica and Trebuchet. It’s Baskerville.
It’s is an older typeface, developed in the mid-18th century by the calligrapher and stonecutter John Baskerville, who was also a notable dandy, adulterer, atheist, and general lightning rod for scandal. His typeface was unpopular during his lifetime, and Morris includes an excellent bit of correspondence from Benjamin Franklin wherein he faked out a self-styled Connoisseur of Founts by showing him a specimen of Bodoni, pretending it was Baskerville and letting the man insult it up and down before admitting to the trick. If nothing else, it’s heartening to see how seriously those people took their letterforms:
He said you would be a Means of blinding all the Readers in the Nation, for the Strokes of your Letters being too thin and narrow, hurt the Eye, and he could never read a Line of them without Pain. I thought, said I, you were going to complain of the Gloss on the Paper, some object to: No, no, says he, I have heard that mentioned, but it is not that; ’tis in the Form and Cut of the Letters themselves.
Fortunately for us, heartfelt typographic criticism hasn’t gone out of style. As David Dunning, a Cornell psychology professor who helped Morris design his survey, Baskerville has gravitas. It is the king of fonts. We’re even treated to the use of the word “tuxedo” as an adjective:
There are some typefaces that are informal—Comic Sans, obviously—and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness.
Which is a whole lot more eloquent than what I would offer up, which is that I’ve always found Baskerville to be really beautifully scalable, to the point of having separate 9-point and a 24-point personalities—it’s the Sibyl of typefaces, except in a good way. But here’s why I love Errol Morris: Because in addition to an intelligent and in-depth discussion of font psychology, he also manages to work in killer asteroids, Civil War amputation drama, the Higgs Boson particle, the Baskerville Curse, an instance of the word “inhum’d” (the opposite of “exhumed,” of course, sadly lacking in contemporary burial terminology), the Priestley Riots of 1791, Voltaire, omnibus ANOVA calculations, and a sexy little New York Times endnote correction explaining the difference between “typeface” and “font.” Oh thank you, thank you.
Predictably, the piece has attracted an unusually eclectic bunch of comments, which are worth reading if time permits (my favorite: “It’s stupid to opine about facts”). At any rate, it’s fun to see type used as a springboard for broader musings, and I’m glad Errol Morris took the time to do it. Small things mean a lot; I once fell in love with a man at least in part because said his favorite typeface was Book Antiqua—not because it’s my favorite face too (although I like it very much), but because he had a favorite at all.
Could I love a man who had a thing for Comic Sans? Thankfully, I don’t need to find out—I live with Mr. Book Antiqua. But it’s something to consider. You don’t call something a font of inspiration for nothing.
(Specimen of Baskerville’s types, 1775, courtesy of Cambridge University Library.)