Tuesday, April 27, 2010


My current reading on MUNI (as I ride back and forth to and from the San Francisco library where I work) is Ransom, David Malouf's miraculously successful retelling of the Priam/Achilles episode from The Iliad. Simone Weil zeroed in on this same episode more than half a century ago in the best commentary on Homer that I have come across in a long reading life. Her essay is called The Iliad, or, The Poem of Force, and she talks mostly about the significance of Priam feeling driven to beg for the body of his son Hector from the semi-divine hero Achilles, Hector's killer. Weil saw Priam from the outside, as a human archetype responding to the grief that violence engenders in all places at all times. Malouf sets himself the task of seeing Priam from the inside by re-imagining a doomed king who may or may not have actually existed several thousand years ago.

The image above is an opening from the American edition of Malouf's short novel. The "Note on the Type" at the back of the book tells us that "the text of this book was set in Sabon, a typeface designed by Jan Tschichold (1902-1974), the well-known German typographer. Based loosely on the original designs by Claude Garamond (c. 1480-1561), Sabon is unique in that it was explicitly designed for hotmetal composition on both the Monotype and Linotype machines as well as for filmsetting. Designed in 1966 in Frankfurt, Sabon was named for the famous Lyons punch cutter Jacques Sabon, who is thought to have brought some of Garamond's matrices to Frankfurt."

Tschichold being a great favorite of mine from way back, this conjunction of a great story and a great typeface caused me to look up a bit more about Sabon. The page immediately below is from Christopher Burke's Active Literature : Jan Tschichold and the New Typography (London : Hyphen Press, 2007). It reproduces one of Tschichold's preliminary drawings from 1960 showing serifed, italic and sanserif versions of Sabon.

The 1965 drawing below – right on the verge of the actual production of Sabon – is reproduced from Ruari McLean's Jan Tschichold : Typographer (Boston : David R. Godine, 1975).

Elongated center-justified five-line dedication (below, all caps) is from Jan Tschichold, Designer : The Penguin Years by Richard B. Doubleday (London : Lund Humphries, 2006). Sabon arrived too late to be part of the story told in this book. Tschichold left Penguin in 1949 more than ten years before he began to conceive Sabon. That fact, it seems to me, makes the gesture all the more graceful (on the part of the author and/or designer and/or publisher), setting the text in Tschichold's most beautiful typeface even though it postdates the Penguin years.

Finally, above, the cover of an essay collection published in 1991, also set in Sabon. The group of German printers who commissioned the typeface requested that it be "easy and pleasant to read and suitable for all printing purposes."