Kosofsky, who designs, writes, produces and edits books in the
fields of Jewish studies, history, music, art and design in
Lexington, Mass., fell in love with Daniel Berkeley Updike's
two-volume Printing Types when he was in high school—“a love
that's lasted a lifetime,” he says, as if he had stumbled upon “the
particle physics of literacy.” Kosofsky became a printer with an
interest in lettering. Starting out with a letterpress shop in his
dining room in Boston's South End, he founded The Philidor
Press—now The Philidor
Company, named for a French family of polymaths (composers,
librarians, printers, chess masters) as it was the only name he
could think of that connected all that he did. Kosofsky has devoted
himself to producing typographically intricate Judaic texts and
mahzors, or prayer books. But while he's an expert in
Judaica, he also packages and produces secular books, including
Asylum: Inside the Closed World
of State Mental Hospitals, which features stunning
photographs by Christopher Payne and an essay by the wonderful
Oliver Sacks (MIT Press). What he calls “the non-Hebraic side of my
brain” is obsessed with image reproduction and Asylum
features new screening technology that he adapted from work done by
Agfa awhile back. Mesmerized by Kosofsky's commitment to craft I
engaged him in the following interview.
(top) Scott-Martin Kosofsky (photo: Sophie Kosofsky); an
engraving from his book The Book of Customs (HarperCollins).
Heller: Why Judaica?
Kosofsky: Where else could one find graphic opportunities
of such richness? In truth, it's my mission and my mitzvah,
the place where I can do the most good and leave the world a bit
better than I found it. I wouldn't get to say that if I worked on
Wall Street. It's work that will never be forgotten or thrown away
(Jewish books cannot be discarded; they have to be buried in a kind
of mausoleum, a genizah). That said, it gives one a serious
incentive to make sure the typography is good--eternity is a long
time to live down shlock work.
Heller: You are both a Judaic book scholar and a
typographical perfectionist. I'd argue that this is not the easiest
combination to be as a designer. What is it that appeals to you
about designing Hebraic texts?
Kosofsky: I'm glad you know what I am; I have no
end of difficulty explaining myself. In some quarters of the
publishing community, I'm known chiefly as a packager and producer
of interesting photography books. In others, I'm known best for
work I did a long time ago in music, especially in “early music”
and theoretical work in jazz. Some people think I'm a writer,
though I've published only one solo book of note. But there's no
question that typography and Judaica are the leitmotifs of my
Heller:And complexity, in design, that is, seems to
be one of the hallmarks.
Kosofsky: I never thought of easy as a
possibility—or as fun. My wife, Betsy Sarles, who's a very good
designer, says that I make easy things hard by obsessing over
details. I always counter by saying that because I'm such an
intense worker, I don't take any more time than the less obsessed.
What I do is try to bring clarity and a particular voice to complex
literature. In picture books, on the other hand, I try to withdraw
as much as I can, to stay out of the way of the main show and
simply support it with as much judgment as I can muster.
Mahzor design by Scott-Martin Kosofsky.
Heller: What appeals to you about complex Judaic
Kosofsky: One becomes addicted to designing
complex texts. They're never the same and never boring—and you have
to become involved with them in the most intimate way, as the
practical voice of the editorial team, and as the typesetter and
designer. Designing Judaic texts in America, which is inevitably a
bilingual affair (or trilingual, if you're dealing with
transliterated Hebrew as an element), is a perfect fix for my
addiction. I came to it part by accident, part by birthright, and
part by a sense of mission to restore to these books the dignity
they once had in the early days of printing, in the Golden Age of
the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when the very appearance of
the pages pulled you in like a magnet to nails, with a feeling of
both enveloping comfort and awe. Despite their being of a time long
ago, these books are inextinguishably modern, offering readers
text, reference information and discourse all at once. Isn't that
what William Gaddis or David Foster Wallace were trying to do? Or
Zadie Smith? Or Melville?
The traditional segmenting of work in today's publishing houses
gives poor service to such literature; things that are meant to be
contemplated and read in parallel become either a mass of
single-column confusion or a junk shop of out-of-control weirdness.
With Judaic texts, the standards had gone down and down, enough to
make me cringe with shame when I walked into a synagogue. I had to
do something about it because I knew I could. As my friend Jonathan
Sarna, the historian, says, you don't stay home from shul on
Yom Kippur just because you don't like the rabbi.
Heller:We can agree that type is the lingua
franca of design. But precision is not on every designer's
agenda. Do you think there is a decline in typographic standards
today, at least the way that you practice them?
Kosofsky: It's the best of times and the worst of
times, but I have a feeling that people have always said that,
depending on their drugs of choice. In regard to print, I think
we're at a great moment, with access to mature technology and
aesthetics: optically sized OpenType typefaces that are well-made
and comfortable in their own skin, sophisticated H&Js in
InDesign, the tools to make our own types and improve others.
There's no excuse for anything looking less than great. But books
(and print in general) have lost their pride of place. Book
publishers, a group nearly always behind the curve, have failed to
grasp that their online counterparts spend a lot of time and money
concentrating on User Experience, while they remain unfamiliar with
the concept. It wasn't always that way, but when the
professionalism and discipline that was demanded by metal type fell
away, things got worse and worse, especially typographically. That
transition period is long over, though you don't see much evidence
of it in trade books, because editors are usually clueless about
graphic possibilities; they never know what's possible and what
isn't (or what's expensive and what isn't). Covers are a different
matter, of course.
Heller:But you say it's the best of times, too. How
Kosofsky: Where I do see good, disciplined
typography is in some corporate and institutional work, and, in
Europe, in government work. Erik
Spiekermann's career has been built on typography of a very
high standard. He's made high craft out of train tables and
corporate manuals. I once introduced him at a lecture by saying,
“In the land of tabular matter, Erik is king.” There's also some
very good typography in what one might broadly call advertising or
identity design. But that's a different sensibility from working in
books, and it doesn't often transfer successfully.
Heller:Why must typography—I mean good typography—be
such a complex practice?
Kosofsky: Because it's about discipline, critical
vision, and a kind of self-knowledge of your own reading habits
that's hard to cultivate. It's also self-effacing, which much other
design is not. Everyone loves fonts, but few understand that how
they work in reading is more a matter of the side-bearings, the
fixed space on either side of the character, than it is about the
characters themselves. How unromantic can you get. If you look at
the Jenson and Aldine types, it's the rhythm and fit of the
characters that make them so beautiful, so easy to apprehend. You
can't correct poorly set side-bearings in a kerning table—it will
look jumpy and uneven, as many fonts do. For years, I made my own
text fonts, and for Hebrew I still do, but now there are a mature
bunch of type designers who know what they're doing.
There are also the issues of weight and scale and proportion.
You can't set 9-point type with a font designed for display; the
spacing will be too narrow, the characters too spindly. This was
the great virtue of foundry metal, where each size was its own cut
and in some ways its own design, even in most Linotype and Monotype
fonts. Then came photo type and early digital. Mike Parker and
tried to introduce some size specific masters at Linotype in the
early digital days, but no one bought them. Then ITC became the
dominant supplier of font art, selling “one size fits all” display
types in an over-developed weighting system (weighted mainly toward
enhancing revenues) for text—a very dark age. Note that when type
technology was emancipated by PostScript and Fontographer, ITC
dropped like a stone.
Heller:You've designed many books. Do you believe
that authors care about the quality of their typography?
Kosofsky: Some of the best authors I've worked
with are long dead, so I'm free to imagine that they cared a whole
lot. Because I don't work in trade books, except for books I
package completely, I don't have much experience with fiction
writers. I wonder how some would react if I told them that their
320-page novel is too leaded out and would be more readable if it
were fit into 224 pages. John Updike was very interested in
typography and I had a charming correspondence with him (those
little typed postcards) shortly before he died. I had sent him a
copy of The SP Century, the essay book I edited for the
centennial of the Society of Printers, as it contained some
previously unpublished information about Daniel Berkeley Updike, to
whom he was distantly related and held in high regard. I think he
knew something about typography and printing, which he regarded as
Printing the Talmud, designed by Scott-Martin Kosofsky for the
Yeshiva University Museum.
Heller:At a Pecha Kucha at the Society of Printers in
May, you offered two of your typographic favorites: the
Plantin Polyglot Bible and the
Century Dictionary. What makes these such paradigms?
Kosofsky: Both are monuments to the graceful
design and management of highly layered texts. In the great Plantin
Old Testament (a term we Jews don't care for), we have
simultaneously, in four columns, across the spreads: the Hebrew,
Saint Jerome's Latin Vulgate, the Greek, and the Latin paraphrase
of the Greek, then the Aramaic “targum” at the bottom of the
left-hand page and the Latin translation of the Aramaic on the
bottom of the right-hand page. The entire world of the Bible, as it
was known at the time, sits before you, spread after spread.
Something like this was tried earlier, in the Alcala
(“Complutensian”) Bible of 1514-17, which is very impressive, but
Plantin nailed it. For one thing, he had the master type-cutter
Guillaume Le Bé make all the fonts, which have remarkable harmony.
Oh my! Matthew Carter gave me an article his father wrote in the
1950s about the making of those Hebrew types. It was amazing to see
how much Plantin knew
about every major Jewish printed book that came before him.
I think De Vinne
had the harder job with the Century Dictionary, with even more
layers in a much smaller, three-column page—with illustrations, no
less. Every necessary differentiation has been made, not one too
many nor one too few. It's utterly perfect and it became the model
for every dictionary that followed—everywhere, not just in the
United States—and it showed the beginning of a shift in advanced
learning in the 1890s from Europe to America. I think every design
student should be given a page of it to work out in their own way,
with the restriction that there cannot be any less material on the
page. It's the shock and awe method of education. That's how I
learned, by claiming I could do things I had never done, then doing
whatever it would take to deliver on the promise. If not for the
examples of guys like Plantin and De Vinne, I don't think I'd have
Heller: You've told me the old Jewish hypertexts (Talmud,
codes of law) took battalions of compositors decades to produce,
whereas your recent Mazhor Lev
Shalem was done by you—one person—in less than two years,
while the writing was still going on. How did you do it?
Kosofsky: God's will, I suppose. My client, the
Rabbinical Assembly, had everything riding on this, and I couldn't
let them down. You get into the zone and keep working until you
drop. No one could have helped, I think, with the pages, which
often went through as many as 18 or 20 revisions. Though there
appears to be a grid (or grids), it's constantly being altered,
sometimes very slightly. No two spreads in this 944-page book are
quite the same. I learned how to do this cleverly from measuring
columns of the Bomberg and Soncino editions of the Talmud, from the
early 16th century, but every book has its own set of issues, so,
at the end of the day, you're in your own little world, all
I also had an unusually high degree of editorial authority, and
I could say no to some things that wouldn't fit—essential for doing
this kind of work. The chief editor, Edward Feld, a wonderful
rabbi, poet and mensch, was as good a partner as one could
ever hope to have. Working closely with him made the work go more
quickly and there were two superb chief proofreader/copyeditors.
All of them are more amazed it got done than I am. I had to be the
general coach to keep everyone—a veritable battalion of copyeditors
and proofreaders and committee members, from Santa Monica to
Jerusalem—moving along, which required my coming up with an
ever-ready stream of jokes to defuse the inevitable tensions. It
ended with smiles and hugs all around. At this moment, when only a
few have actually seen the physical book, it has sold over 100,000
copies. I'm expecting that we're going to run out of the initial
130,000 run well before the High Holidays.
Also in this timeframe, I made the principal Hebrew font, using
new technology for the automated placement of the myriad
diacriticals, beyond anything done before. Now with that I
did have a partner, Israel Seldowitz, who wrote the substitution
and positioning strings in VOLT. Israel is
a Lubavitcher rabbi in Brooklyn who happens to be a typographer. He
and his brother have a business, FontWorld, that is the sole
distributor of the Middle Eastern versions of the Adobe Creative
Suite software. Go figure. The font we made is really something of
a breakthrough, a game changer for future Hebrew texts.
Milon typeface glyphs designed by Scott-Martin Kosofsky.
Heller: Is there some kind of trance you put yourself into
when designing a typographic scheme?
Kosofsky: It's a trance of low expectations, when
you have to get the big idea right but not oversell yourself on the
particulars, which will only be worked out in time. It's also about
function trumping form at every turn. I don't care what the font
is, who designed it, what its standing is among the typerati, only
that it works perfectly for the purpose at hand. I never think
about “style” as a goal or as an agenda (I used to, but I grew out
of it). Style will come about inadvertently, as an unconscious
byproduct of understanding the necessities of the text. In the
mahzor I used a very unorthodox—pardon the
expression—combination of types, including fonts that I'd never
given much notice. The English texts are set in two sizes of Arno,
but their italic is Chapparal (set a little smaller), which has
nothing to do with Arno stylistically. The Arno italic was too
calligraphic, too pretty, for this book, and it slowed my reading,
which I saw as an inexcusable sin.
The sans serif font, always in small sizes, is Cronos, which,
like Arno, was made by Robert Slimbach. It occurred to me that
Adobe's types from a certain period have very similar weights and
x-heights. I don't think that was intentional, just a group reflex
that developed there. My Hebrew font, Milon, was based, albeit
remotely, on Henri Friedlaender's Hadassah type, for which no good
digital version exists. Hadassah wasn't designed for diacriticals,
so it was best to do something in that spirit, but very much
reconsidered for this purpose. Beside the Milon, the only font that
does set a kind of style is Sumner Stone's Magma, which I use as
caps only for titling.
Heller:There is a lot of chatter lately about the
iPad as the corner-turner in the evolution of printed book to
digital book. Do you think this will impact typographic
Kosofsky: No, it will go the other way around.
Typographic practice is as firm a foundation as exists in the
world, and eventually the iPad, particularly iBooks, will meet
designers and typographers on their own ground. I think in this
first model they couldn't overload the chip, but that will change
and grow. Apple and designers have mutual interests and
dependencies that are beneficial to both—and to everyone. In the
online universe and the burgeoning world of ebooks, things will
only get better. With the Kindle, the typographic possibilities
might be intrinsically limited by E Ink's technology (possibly a
dead end), but when the iPad was released just days ago, some
critics, like Craig
Mod, came down like a ton of bricks on the lack of
sophisticated H&Js and the limited typeface array in iBooks. As
I said, it will get better anyway, but I hope the critics will make
it happen faster. Someone will read this a year from now and wonder
what the hell I'm talking about.
What the iPad will change most dramatically is trade publishing,
even more than the Kindle has. It's well underway and it will only
be for the better, maybe with a much-needed change of players. Can
you think of a worse product than the trade hardcover, a
perfect-bound book with boards that you have to wrestle open with
two hands and can barely read in the gutter? Good riddance! People
who are cynical enough to destroy their own product in order to
save pennies (literally) per unit don't deserve to survive.
Digital devices are creating new possibilities for reading, but don’t write off books just yet. Heller argues for the mutability and adaptability of print.
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