This is not exactly a review of Yannis Haralambous’ Fonts & Encodings; that would be the work of years, and I doubt there’s anyone in the world qualified to discuss the whole thing, except its author. This new O’Reilly book is about a thousand pages in length. It’s impossibly ambitious, irritatingly flawed, and probably only comprehensible to a single-digit number of thousands of people world-wide; but for those people it’s an essential book, you just have to have it.
Language Shift · I was most of the way through the 25-page Introduction, not having looked at the front or back cover very carefully, and I thought “This is translated from French.” True enough, and fairly flowery French at that; for example:
For computerized typesetting is based on mechanical typesetting, and the terms that we use today were invented by those people whose hands were indelibly blackened, not with oil (the liquid that pollutes our ecosystem), but with printer’s ink (the liquid that bears wisdom).
I spotted one little probably-in-translation problem: the discussion of XML uses the term namespace alias rather than prefix. Perhaps there are others lurking in other arcane technical corners. Still, this doesn’t seem serious.
Scope · Like the title says, more or less everything having anything to do with digital text, its encoding, transmission, and presentation. Most subjects are accompanied by exhaustive historical background, which certainly make the book more enjoyable even if they don’t increase its reference value.
Let’s see: Pre-Unicode; Unicode; Asian texts; Font management on Mac, Windows, X Windows, in TEX, and on the Web; Classification of typefaces and fonts; Editing and creating fonts; Optimizing rasterization; Advanced Typography. Then there are huge, immensely detailed appendices on font formats ranging from TEX to TrueType, OpenType, and AAT. Some of these things I only barely knew existed, now I have all the details right here on the bookshelf.
Organization · The organization of this book is, frankly, weird. The discussion of Unicode starts with the encoding forms before it gets into the character repertoire and planes. The discussion of XML appears as a subset of the discussion of SVG. But the index seems competent, and as I said, more or less everything appears somewhere or another, so this is bearable.
Praise · The discussion of Unicode is pretty wonderful; the only instance I’ve seen that actually improves on the Unicode spec itself. I learned all sorts of things I hadn’t known, and I’d thought of myself as fairly erudite on the subject.
The discussion of font and typeface classification dives deep on a subject I hadn’t even known existed. Most people don’t know what Panose is, and most people who do, avoid thinking about it; the explanation here is clear and straightforward.
But really, the best thing about the book is is breadth; it’s all here, and it’s nice to have a book with all this stuff, even if it it isn’t all perfect.
Irritants · It’s not all perfect. I can only criticize the parts I can understand, but it’s not hard to find gripes. The discussion of XML is cursory at best, omitting the fact that its characters are by definition Unicode, or any discussion of Draconian error-handling; these are two things that any serious user of XML Needs To Know.
The discussion of Web typography seems pretty weak to me, too. To start with, it states, and then continues to assume, that CSS really only applies to XHTML, which is simply wrong and dangerously misleading. Then it invests a lot of space in various CSS properties which, it notes, are not actually implemented by any browser.
Then there’s a lengthy discussion of font downloading, which in my experience still lies way outside the mainstream, ending in a lengthy paean to something called GlyphGate as the One True Ultimate Path to good Web Typography. Apparently it’s a proprietary server extension that does some magic to enrich typography in your browser. I’d never heard of it, and I’m unimpressed by the Web site.
Some might find it irritating that the book invests hundreds of pages in subjects and technologies (many TEX-related) that are really only of historical interest, but I don’t see any harm in that.
Why Does It Matter? · Go check out Rob Sayre’s recent Firefox 3 Can Render Technology Correctly, which has a screenshot of a browser engaging in [gasp!] kerning. Making the browser do this involves applying a combination of technologies that are described in several hundred of this book’s pages, and, as far as I know, not in one place anywhere else. Speaking as one who invested some hours hand-kerning the title over at Textuality, I appreciate why this book needs to exist.
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: Deron Meranda (Oct 28 2007, at 23:57)
As a long time amateur typographer, starting with TeX and metafont, it's nice to see a new book that is attempting to be somewhat comprehensive on the subject, or as much as any book of such a "small" size could cover such as vast topic.
I remember digging around in the old Adobe FTP site and others picking up specs on AFM and many other obscure font format topics. The learning curve was steep back then, not just because of the technical complexity and unfamiliar lingo, but also because of the difficulty of finding information--or even knowing what information you need to find. Although the situation is getting much better, it certainly doesn't help that font foundries, designers, and commercial typographers are such a secretive elitist group (they are frequently some of the most extreme proponents of strong patents, copyrights, "evil-bit" restrictions, and private memberships you'll find outside any **AA cartel). So I hope this book will make it much easier for the masses to get a wealth of information from one easy to find source.
I haven't read this book yet, but by browsing the contents and as Tim said, it will surely be a fascinating journey for those who haven't been exposed to the inner workings of type. What seems simple on the surface is very rich and deep.
If you want to learn more about type approaching from the other direction (i.e., from the language side rather than the computer side), I'd also recommend the 2002 book "Language, Culture, Type: International Type Design in the Age of Unicode", published by the ATypI (atypi.org ISBN 193202601-0). Although half the book is just a gallery of award-winning fonts exemplifying the topic, the other half is very informative. It is especially enlightening to understand how typography works (or doesn't) for non-Latin scripts such as Cyrillic, Greek, and especially Arabic (where typography is immensely more complex than just producing glyph lists and doing a bit of kerning).
From: Eric Meyer (Oct 29 2007, at 07:53)
Actually, I wish more technical books were written that way. I'd have done it myself if I hadn't known that editors would knock me down for it. Code is poetry, so why can't books about code be poetic?
Would you say this is a good book for someone who wants to better understand how computers lay out lines of text, particularly where there are mixed font faces and sizes and vertical alignments; or does it restrict itself solely to the character level?
From: Bob Aman (Oct 29 2007, at 10:53)
Ick. GlyphGate renders stuff as images instead of text. Not a fan. I'm glad I haven't seen anyone adopting it.