Mayo 23, 2004
Aesthetic Lows in the Reference Section.

Someone I know recently expressed disappointment about something that I've been mulling over for years; it's entirely impossible to find a current dictionary that doesn't exemplify everything that is terrible about book design. From Oxford'sinexplicable fondness for airbrush effects (slightly older versions favour the MS Paint-style shitty pixelated spraycan action) through assaultingly dreary traditionalism, the outlook is thoroughly disheartening. For some reason the apparently arch-conservative editorial and marketing types who oversee these sorts of things seem to think that linguistic referencee and aesthetic value are mutually exclusive. Do they think it's frivolous to expect something pleasant to look at as well as look in? I suppose dictionaries as objects have to forefront their interiors and maybe bad or boring design is some sort of strategy but that's insufficient.
Furthermore, I'm not trying to be flippant or cute about this; genuinely good design has little to do with loathsome elite detachededness and contrived superficial posturing (often misattributed to heart-on-sleeve aspiring young bourgeois like myself) that usually involves the exaltation of abject bric-a-bracerie, genuinely good design is democratic because it promotes use and complements function rather than dictating or ignoring it.
Bad dictionary cover design is also relatively new; my Shorter OED from the seventies (purchased used for 1/5 of the $250 a new one would have set me back) was thoroughly beautiful until all the pages fell out; lovely understated violet-ish blue with thin red and green racing stripes and a dynamic typeface. Now I'm settling with a hand-me-down 2 volume tank of a set that saw my father through 40 years before it ended up on my shelf. It doesn't have any dustjackets but one of the two books has a naturally occurring and quite charming composition etched in baby-blue mold and decaying laminated cloth on its front board. Despite the fact that this mold threatens to spread across my bookshelf into the jackets and boards of my modern first editions, I would rather stick with my crumbly, obsolete 1959 mess of dictionary than upgrade to something splotched with lurid red and green action painting and Rule Britannia typeface.
Things aren't totally bleak in the reference aisle though; two shimmering favourites offer promise or at least possible direction. First of all, The Chicago Manual of Style is a perennial winner and the the 15th edition lives up to every single one of my standards. Also, I'm all about the pear yellow on the new Bartlett's Thesaurus shown here, which also features a very playful and attractive spine. The little bugger begs to be ripped off the shelf and perused. I hope somebody at Oxford notices that the bar has been raised.

Incidentally, it's raining outside and I can't be bothered to do anything except think about dictionary dustjacket designs. It's 1.30 and I've been up for ages and I haven't even eaten yet.

Posted by at Mayo 23, 2004 01:25 PM

What's most infuriating, I think, is that it's not difficult to make something look good. (It's certainly not difficult to hire someone to make something look good.) And it's not shallow to want to make something look good. Genuinely good design is a result of the exact opposite of "loathsome elite detachedness and contrived superficial posturing": it's not elite to make a book attractive and thus widely appealing, and it's hardly superficial to make a well-made thing.

What's also infuriating is that talking about subjects like this opens you up to tedious, earnest, literal-minded schoolchild arguments like "it's what's *inside* the book that counts", &c. Snore.

Posted by: adHominem on Mayo 28, 2004 12:27 AM .

I knew you'd be with me on this one, guy. What do you think about those new Bartlett's? Now I want to get one of those "Poems for Every Occasion" and all that!

Posted by: Riscourde on Mayo 31, 2004 11:07 AM .

Those new Bartlett's are pretty nice; they remind me, though, of the seventies hardcover edition of Julia Child's "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking". Not necessarily a bad thing. "Poems to Get Fat By", perhaps.

Posted by: adHominem on Mayo 31, 2004 06:52 PM .
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