WHO IS THE AUTHOR?
Bruce Rogers was an American book designer born in 1870. Today he is often referred to as a typographer, but he called himself a book designer. He saw typography as one aspect of a multifaceted art. He became famous for his work at The Riverside Press. Rogers was more respected by his peers than by history. This is certainly rooted in his commitment to an old fashioned style during the rise of the Bauhaus and modernism.
The structure of the Paragraphs on Printing is a bit curious. The book begins with a three-page Introductory Note. The 187 pages that follow are the Paragraphs interspersed with 98 examples of Mr. Rogers’ work. Along with the paragraphs and the plates, extensive notes on the plates account for the remainder of the bulk of the book. After the Paragraphs are two pages of Useful Books for the Book Designer and the book ends with a three-page Colophon. The curious bit is the lack of navigation: no heads, or chapters, or index, or even a table of contents are present.
WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?
It is worth mentioning that the Introductory Note discusses Mr. Rogers hesitation in participating in the book. Mr. Hendrickson, who co-wrote the book, states that Mr. Rogers has been “at no time enthusiastic about the idea” The verbose subtitle offers another clue: “Elicited from Bruce Rogers in talks with James Hendrickson on the functions of the book designer.”
Paragraphs on Printing appears to be trying to be three things at once. It is a survey of Mr. Rogers work, his opinions, and philosophies regarding book design and a self-described student guide. The start of the book mentions “The young designer to whom this is directed” And later “directed to what might be called an intermediate student” It is most successful as a survey of Mr. Rogers formidable and beautiful body of work, but in all three it struggles a bit, for the ironic failing of poor design. The designers seem to have become too attached to the preciousness of the title. There are paragraphs and only paragraphs. No practical way to navigate the book besides reading or skimming from beginning to end. In addition, the book has a stream of conscious feel as the text jumps from topic to topic without a clear structure or discernible destination. The navigation issues make it a challenge to find the treasures inside.
The book is its best when the author is his most passionate. Mr. Rogers thoughts on proportion are such an example. As is his discussion of the virtues and advantages of damp paper printing. Despite conceding it being impractical at times, he seems smitten: “The slight halo or highlight created around the individual recessed letters brings a sparkle and life to the page that cannot be obtained by dry printing.” For those things he disdains he has equal enthusiasm: “The bleeding of pictures off the page is as objectionable as the term itself. It is permissible in a magazine or advertising printing, it is offensive in a book.”
Many of Mr. Rogers ideas are relevant today. His thoughts on constraints imposed by clients or circumstance: “Stimulation can be found in the very limitation itself.” Without using the word he invokes gestalt several times: “This fundamental integrity, this oneness this bringing together all the parts into a whole is the real art of printing.” In contrast, Mr. Rogers is sometimes at odds with today’s thinking. For example, he is attached to the notion of book design as an art, an idea that most designers today distance themselves from. He makes his point with asides like: “As far as the designing of a book goes the matter is more art than craft.”
Throughout the book are multiple one or two paragraph departures concerning things like question marks and guard-sheets that are very specific, less compelling, and whose frequency adds to the scattershot feel of the book. It is as if they were trying to fit every thought in.
In the Introductory Note the book is called epigrammatic, and to that end perhaps, the Paragraphs section ends with a bit of pragmatic humor regarding those who take up book design, “The result will be a lasting thing of beauty – or not- according to his capacity as a workman and his taste as an artist.”
The Colophon upends expectations by beginning with a history of colophons before reverting to the original function.
IT IS AN OLD BOOK WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
As far as the text goes, the book does not lack breadth. There is certain to be a topic that is of interest and much of it is relevant today. Good luck navigating it. But the work is the thing. Despite changes in style, taste, and technology a remarkable level of skill evident in these illustrations. It is artful. His typography and design compare favorably to work done today. It is obvious why his peers considered him one of the best ever.
Bruce Rogers was a book designer. This book contains both his work and thoughts on book design. Many of his ideas translate well to modern practice. Mr. Rogers book design is unimpeachable, if a bit old-fashioned even for its time.
QUOTATIONS TO SHARE WITH FRIENDS
“As in architecture, and in many other Arts, the most important element of beauty in bookmaking is proportion; that is proportion of type to page, proportion of lettering and spacing, proportion of page to paper proportion, of margins to each other – it pervades the whole process.”
“The habit of too much meticulous attention to every minor detail is apt to result in preciousness, that banality of all forms of Art.”
“One of the essential requirements for a book designer he be a book lover.”
“Printers and students of today are too apt to base their work and studies on contemporary printing, exclusion of earlier models.”
“A handicapped for many aspiring young printers is it to become too enthusiastic about their own work.”
“Mechanical Perfection of any kind is in the inimical to the highest forms of Art, too much purity of Execution almost results in a loss of vigor in the final effect.”
“Comparatively few designers have the courage to remove superfluous ornamentation”