22 February, 2008
All The News That’s Fit To Write
Photo: Scott Carney
The distance between handwriting and typography is at its greatest in the West. It's been more than five centuries since the Latin alphabet, as we experience it in type, looked anything like letters made with a pen; the very anatomy of our alphabet, with its stonemason's "serifs" and printer's "cases," has come a very long way from writing indeed. It can hardly be surprising that as type has come to represent the official, the sanctioned, and the eternal, handwriting has become an almost trivial appendix to our notion of what letters look like.
It's especially easy for Westerners to forget what a minority opinion this is. Most of the world attaches special significance to the hand-written, and lives with an intimate knowledge of its forms and an appreciation of its cultural and social dimensions. A Chinese businessperson of stature can be expected not only to admire the calligraphy in a colleague's office, but to correctly identify it as the work of Song Huizong, and to discuss its virtues with erudition. Contrast this with his American counterpart, who can go an entire career without needing to learn the name of his corporate typeface.
Both senses of the word "writing" remain united in the Arab world, where calligraphy and literacy are at times inseparable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the offices of The Musalman, a Chennai newspaper published since 1927, which has the extraordinary virtue of being the world's last surviving newspaper written entirely by hand. "We somehow manage to make ends meet," says one of the newspaper's four calligraphers (or katibs) who every day devotes three hours to a single page. "There's no monetary benefit for us, we are just here to learn Urdu."
The handwritten newspaper gained wider attention last summer when Wired dispatched photojournalist Scott Carney to document The Musalman's inner workings. Later this year, we may learn more about the paper's inevitable entanglement with digital typography, when Premjit Ramachandran releases his documentary film The Last Calligraphers. —JH
12 November, 2007
Robots have long been useful in completing challenging or hazardous tasks: dismantling explosives, assembling automobiles, winning chess tournaments, etc. Robotlab in Karlsruhe, Germany, is training them for another purpose: calligraphy. Above, an articulated limb renders the Luther Bible in a primitive but serviceable version of the schwabacher script.
This innovation can't come a moment to soon. For thousands of years, human calligraphers have subjected themselves to years of difficult study, exposing themselves to demanding physical conditions in the service of the written word. Even with the advent of non-toxic ink and cruelty-free vellum, calligraphy is not without its hazards: in addition to carpal tunnel syndrome and asthenopic eye strain, careless practicioners often suffer the socially sclerotic effects of Renaissance Faire attendance or absorptive Tolkienism. Most chillingly, mounting evidence suggests that even in industrialized nations, calligraphy is becoming a popular pastime among children.
Thankfully, technology is coming to our rescue. As these photos suggest, robot calligraphers may soon be employed to create that common household object, the hand-lettered bible in roll form. And overhead, without any fuss, the stars are going out. —JH
3 October, 2007
The Voynich Manuscript
Only if Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, J. R. R. Tolkien and Will Shortz clubbed together in a moment of wickedness could humanity produce a more vexing object: behold the Voynich Manuscript, a puzzling artifact from the late fifteenth century written by an unknown author, in an unidentified script, in an unknown language. Since 1912, cryptographers, palaeographers, and others with time on their hands have failed to decipher this mysterious document; naturally one theory is that it's a monstrous hoax, though its text seems to bear the hallmarks of a genuine language (note the cross-references on Zipf's Law, information entropy, and the Cardan grille). Any theories? — JH
22 September, 2007
Oakleaf: Behind the Scenes
Kathy Willens, Associated Press
The Associated Press has posted a slideshow that accompanies the article about us, which charts the development of our typeface for The Nature Conservancy. You'll find it in the AP's "multimedia" section, here.
There's an audio track that includes an interview with Tobias and Jonathan — as well as an alarming sample of the ambient room noise seven floors above Broadway & Houston — but since some additional explanation of the images seemed useful, we've gathered some thoughts here. More images after the jump…Continues...