Is the Paradise We’ve Lost the Beautiful Page?

by | Jun 1, 2010

Everywhere you turn people are talking about ebooks and the future of book publishing. My explorations of the iPad have landed me in the iBooks app for long periods of time, and deep in Stanza on my iPhone, Calibre on my Mac, and Kindles on the various Kindle reader programs on all these platforms.

But this is certainly the “bleeding edge,” because it’s not that common to see people actually reading ebooks down at Starbucks, or hanging around the fountain in downtown San Rafael. No, they are probably reading paperbacks more than anything else. Maybe it’s just me, with tunnel vision, who sees ebooks and their accouterments everywhere.

Then of course I spend hours working on books for design clients, designing pages and variants, producing cover after cover. But all these designs, and the files into which we pour the final manuscripts, are digital, visible only on screen.

When you’ve been designing books on a computer for a while, you begin to merge the images on the screen and your visceral expectations of the finished book. In other words, when I look at the spread on my monitor, I’m experiencing a kind of projection of what the finished book will be like.

Books designed this way are sometimes oddly disappointing. They can never be as perfect as their digital representation on the screen, the colors never as bright, the pages never as sharp and square. This is a legacy of the digital age.

Books, and Books

Vaguely disattisfied, I wandered out of my office, and noticed the cabinet where we keep the remnants of my book collection, such as it is. At one time I had collected fine books, but that was many years ago. I had only kept a few favorites. I pulled out two large volumes, cases covered in a printed paper, spines wrapped in vellum.

This is the 1926 edition of Milton’s Poems from the legendary Nonesuch Press. The first volume is Paradise Lost, the second Miscellaneous Poems. I’m sorry these photographs don’t show these books any better, but here’s the title page:

nonesuch press milton book design

Click to enlarge

The Nonesuch Press was an interesting experiment in improving books for the reading public. The revival of the book arts that had started near the end of the nineteenth century with the founding of William Morris’ Kelmscott Press had produced numerous small private presses dedicated to producing books by hand and at the highest level of design and production.

Francis Meynell founded Nonesuch Press with his wife Vera Mendel, and the noted Bloomsbury writer David Garnett. Meynell thought there was a way to improve books, without the exclusivity and high prices of the artisan presses. Like Kelmscott, they produced tiny editions of 100 or 150 books, each of which commanded extravagant prices.

At the time books were almost all printed letterpress. Letterpress printing, invented by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, had very nearly been perfected by the twentieth century. Mechanization had brought cheap printing to more people, but the book arts were in decline.

Meynell thought he could bring the two sides of book production together. He set up Nonesuch Press with a hand press, just like the other private presses. But after he had completed designing a book in the handpress model, he turned the actual production of the books over to large, commercial printers.

This Milton, for example, was produced in an edition of 1450 copies, a quantity that no handpress could contemplate. It was printed by the printing office of Cambridge University Press, and is accompanied by illustrations by William Blake. Here’s his “Satan Calling Up His Legions.”

nonesuch press book design typography

Click to enlarge

A Cutting Edge Design in 1926

You may have noticed that the entire book is printing in italic type. This was an unusual decision even in Meynell’s day. The italic handwriting of the Rensaissance was considered one of its humanistic accomplishments, and it had given rise to the very first italic type, cut for Aldus Manutius, one of the earliest and most influential of the Venetian printers.

When the Linotype Foundry decided to resurrect one of the classic roman typefaces of the time, Francesco Griffo’s Poliphilus, they decided to combine it with an italic typeface designed by the papal scribe and type designer Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi. The modern italic was given the name Blado, after the printer who had used Arrighi’s italic fonts.

Meynell decided, in a stroke of design genius, to cast his entire publication of Milton’s poems into the Renaissance, the cradle of modern civilization as well as modern bookmaking. The sturdy Blado italic is not some wimpy slanted typeface playing the role of weak sister to a roman face. Oh no, this is a typeface that needs no roman at all, it’s complete in itself.

The Long Winter

I sat down and read a few pages of the Milton. The opening lines of this great English poem still resonate for me, many years removed from English class.

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe . . .

It took me back to a winter many years ago, after I got this Nonesuch Milton, when I read through the entire Paradise Lost. It was an incredible experience. The paper Meynell used for this edition was specially made, coarse, entirely composed of cotton and linen fiber. It’s thick by today’s standards, and nobbly. It has such a pronounced texture it becomes part of the reading experience. It shows the bite of the metal type beautifully. Here’s a closeup to try to show the paper and typography a little better.

nonesuch press book design blado typeface

Click to enlarge

You can see the completely even color of the type, something not that easy to do with this kind of letterpress printing. The whole effect of reading this book is unlike other kinds of reading experiences. The artfulness of the type, the energy of Arrighi’s italic and the otherwordly illustrations by Blake combine to bring Milton’s words to life in an immediate way.

Back to the Future

As I put the Milton back on the shelf, I realized that it’s probably not possible to reproduce books like this one any longer. There are many fine printers at work today, and letterpress printing is more popular than it has been for some time. Typography has enjoyed an explosion of interest and talent in recent years, spurred on by digitization.

But Nonesuch managed to hit a “sweet spot” in book design and production at a time when all the printing expertise in the world was concentrated on letterpress. There simply is no “commercial letterpress” industry any more, and the big iron letterpresses were long ago melted down, replaced by faster, cheaper offset printing.

Anyway, I had to go back to the survey I was doing of the latest publication for the iPad: a video-enhanced, hot-linked, multi-media text that blinked and pulsed at me from the screen. No matter what speed and convenience we’ve gained, I couldn’t help but feel that we’ve also lost something in the process.

Is there a role for fine printing in our hurried electronic life? Would any of us take the time to spend a winter reading Milton today? What do you think?

Takeaway: Digital books, new ways of looking at text, and the toppling of old structures in the book business are pushing us toward the future. A look back at the past can remind us of what our ancestors thought important about the design of books.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Mike McNamara

    A very interesting post. Ever since coming into this industry on the engineering side, high quality typeset/print books have always fascinated me. I remember once going to a Oxford bookshop in the late 70’s with a colleague and watched him spend a good three figure sum on a small book, typeset set on hand-made paper, a word of art to say the least.

    I still think that there is a place for these ‘special’ books and they will continue to be produced, albeit in smaller numbers. Sadly like many things of the ‘modern’ world, they are becoming a rarity.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mike, it’s interesting that letterpress printing is experiencing a bit of revival at the same time e-books are on the rise. Some of us expect to see a fracturing in the market where high-end books with lots of design detail remain viable and command high prices, while the rest of the market gradually moves to e-books. Should be interesting. Thanks for your contribution.

  2. Adam iWriteReadRate

    Great post, Joel. Agreed, we should always learn from the past! Will tweet to our followers.

  3. Kate Gladstone

    Though we may have lost the greatest beauties of the printed page, we have not lost all hope to gain beauty with the written word. One iPad application, BETTER LETTERS (originally designed for the iPhone and iPodTouch) teaches owners of these devices to use the Italic style of handwriting —

    • Joel Friedlander

      Kate, thanks for the link, I hadn’t seen Better Letters before. It looks like a great use of the touchscreen interface. Odd that the App store has it in its Medical category. I didn’t see an iPad-specific app, but I appreciate your contributing to the conversation.

  4. Mister Reiner

    I’ve never given much thought to the beauty of the printed page. I’m much more aware and in awe of the art I see in kids books and comic books.

    We are certainly in a transition period. It’s like the difference between getting a hand sewn quilt from your grandmother and having your grandmother buy you a quilt from Walmart.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good one, Mister Reiner. And it’s true most people have never seen a book of this kind (the Milton) so have no way to compare.

  5. Wendi Kelly

    Ah, what a pleasure to read such a post. I remember the first time I read Paradise Lost and you have brought me right back to that sense of wonder and magic.

    I love books. Real, honest to goodness books with the smell of ink and pages to turn and that sense of adventure when you open them for the first time. In my heart I am still that same little girl who’s heart fluttered like a hummingbird every time she entered a big library. The smell of old leather and yellowed pages feels like heaven to me.

    Somehow I just can’t see getting all that thrilled when snuggling up to my hunk of electronic components and metal.

    I do know that times are changing. I have so many books that I have no choice but to relent and give some of them away to good homes other than mine. Family is trying to talk me into transferring some of my collection into digital and let go of the real thing. It feels like a freight train coming down the track straight at me. No way to avoid it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, I know that feeling, Wendi. We can watch it happening but there seems to be little we can do about it. One of the troubling things about the move to digitization is that so much is now controlled by just a few companies, and the specifications for these devices are set by committees of engineers. This seems to leave little room for the enthusiasts and hobbyists who have done so much to advance the art of typography for many years.

      But hey, you’ll have more storage space! Thanks for stopping by.

      • Deb Dorchak

        Damn, I never thought about the techno monopoly aspect before. All the more reason to keep the printed word. I certainly don’t want to get to a key point in the story and have the device crash.

        Besides, for what one would spend on a single device you could get a whole stack of low tech, user friendly BOOKS to read. No batteries required.

  6. Joel Friedlander

    Deb, I don’t want to make you cry! But those of us who work with type have to feel a bit of trepidation—at least—at the onrush of ebooks with their nonexistent typographic design. Some days I feel like a buggy whip manufacturer watching the first Model “A”s roll down Main Street. But who knows, the tide may turn yet, and it would be great to be able to carry all this glorious history over into the digital world. Stay tuned, and thanks for your generous comments.

    • Deb Dorchak

      Fear not! They were tears of joy. Yeah, I do feel that sense of trepidation with the onslaught of technology. It’s both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand I’m so grateful for the digital process of layout and on the other, like so many digitized professions, it makes the process open to a lot of garbage, too.

      I’ll be staying tuned, alright. ;)

  7. Deb Dorchak

    Joel, you’re going to make me cry. Before I started doing layout on my current novel I scoured my bookcase, looking at all the pages there, noticing what fonts were used, how they were used, why some looked better than others, what the designer used to separate chapters and sections…I scrutinized everything.

    To some a page of text is a page of text. Times Roman is no different than Georgia to the common man (or woman). For people like us though, every letter is a work of art and how those particular fonts interact on a page is a design in itself.

    There is no more amazing feeling of laying out a book for print and watching it come alive like this. I want it off the screen and in print so I can hold it in my hands and admire it until the pages turn to dust.

    I sincerely hope the printed word never falls by the wayside. That would be a sad, sad thing for sure. And what would happen if everything were digital and our technology was no longer available? What then?

    Thousands of years from now, if mankind is gone and another race is digging around the planet, what will they find? A bunch of disks and dead iPads?

    Yes, it’s late here. I’m running off at the keyboard. That’s only because I liked this post so much! Thanks.

  8. Vincent Nguyen

    Thank you for the interesting historical details of how some books are made especially the ones you have Joel. Very interesting indeed.
    Your story reminds me of arts and craftsmanship from back in the days.
    Architecture, Blacksmiths, Books are just a few incredible and beautiful long-lasting pieces of work that was made by hand with such care and precision.
    It is a beautiful thing to admire great craftsmanship in all form. I can really feel the textures of the pages in your photos just by looking at the richness of the text and each ridge comprised on the pages are qualities that no gadget can ever substitute.

    So does that mean your “book” collection have dwindled or will start to dwindle now that you have the Ipad Joel?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Vincent, it was a long time ago and I’ve since sold off most of the books, just kept a few. There’s a fantastic multi-volume Shakespeare I’ll write up someday. Nice to remember there were books before there were “books.”

  9. Michael N. Marcus

    When I was a young kid, if I wanted to read after my 7:30 bed time, I’d sneak a book and a flashlight under the covers.

    When I was a bit older, I tied a string onto the pull-chain of my closet light and attached a tennis ball to the other end of the string. The light was adequate for reading. If I heard my mother approaching, I yanked the string to turn off the light, and then threw the ball and string into the closet to hide the evidence.

    After I married I tried reading with various Tensors and Itty Bitty Book Lights, and even a small version of a coal miner’s headlamp — but they all disturb my wife.

    Now I have an iPad — with book pages that light up and have adjustable brightness, and better photographic reproductiion than printed pages. THIS is real progress.

    • Joel Friedlander

      So I walked into my wife’s office today to fix a computer there, and handed her associate my iPad to hold while I took a look at a serial number. She said, “You take it everywhere now, don’t you?” and you know, I couldn’t deny it. Pretty, quick, endlessly useful to have around, multi-talented. The only thing I haven’t done with it, Michael, is read a book.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        A few weeks ago I took my iPad with me to a doctor’s appointment because I wanted to discuss some notes I had made on it. She had never seen one before, and I gave her a full demo. We had to stop because her nurse came in to say that the next patient was complaining about being kept waiting. I think we did 60 minutes of iPadding and 10 of medicine. Now the doc has an iPad, too. This is the third or fourth one I’ve “sold.”

        P.S.: What determines whose pictures show up on this blog? Obviously you’re here, but only a few others. Blogspot blogs (like Christy Pinheiro’s and mine) seem to show many more smiling faces of regular visitors.

        • Mayowa

          I think I might have to stay away from these things. I already have a predilection for gadgets and at the rate people are getting converted, I might not be able to resist.

          Have you read any books on the iPad Michael? What do you think of the experience?

          • Michael N. Marcus

            As the Borg said on Star Trek: “resistance is futile.”

            I’ve downloaded about 50 books, both paid-for and freebies. Some were iBooks from from iTunes, some are Kindles from Amazon, and some are PDFs from Lulu or my own PC.

            I’ve finished reading about 10 books, and started about five more. In general I’ve been extremely pleased, and now when I hear about a new book that I want to read, I first check on eBook availability.

            Initially I bought eBooks for quick delivery and portability. Now I realize that I’m saving money, too. I’ve also decided to make my own self-pubbed books available in electronic formats sooner rather than later.

            Most of the eBook pages are much uglier than paper pages, with horrible word spacing, no hyphens, some strange breaks within words, and pages with just one line of text on them. I’m probably more critical than most readers, and the shortcomings will not stop me from getting more eBooks.

            Books made as PDFs look exactly like the printed page — except that the photos are MUCH better than on paper. There are no hyperlinks, and pages are advanced by tapping the bottom of the screen rather than sliding a finger. I can use two fingers to zoom-in, providing more page size flexibility than the other formats.

            None of the eBook formats is perfect, but the abundant iPad advantages make up for the lack of perfection. My ideal would to have the accurate reproduction of a PDF combined with the page-turning illusion of Apple iBooks. Hyperlinks would be nice, too. Someone told me that it’s possible to put hyperlinks in a PDF but I haven’t researched it yet.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Maybe Apple will cut you in . . .?

          I think the avatars are serviced through Gravatar Do you have an account there? They apparently service a lot of these blog avatars.

          • Michael N. Marcus

            Apparently I’ve had an account but never uploaded a photo. Thanks for the info. Now the balding-but-beautifully-bearded population of your blog has increased.

  10. Pete

    I’m always on the lookout for early editions of Paradise Lost with Gustav Dore’s illustrations (late 19th century). A few weeks ago I found a new bookstore and asked about it.

    The elderly owner said that, yes, she thought she had one and led me back to a locked case and opened it. She pointed and told me to take out the book and take my time inspecting it.

    The book was a Dore edtioin, it was much older. What I pulled out of the case was a massive late 18th century codex of Paradise Lost bound in wood and leather. I was awestruck not only that she had it but that she let me hold it and read it unattended. I spent about an hour looking through it. It was an incredible piece of work.

    One of the things that fascinated me was that on the first ten or twelve pages was a list of the patrons who had paid for the work and for whom each copy was printed.

    I wish I could have afforded the $1800 asking price.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Pete, great story, and what a find! The Dore illustrations are like the complete opposite of the Blake ones. Blake is so light and full of light regardless of the subject matter. And that’s really interesting about the “Patron list.” We don’t seem to have that model in book publishing these days.

      Thanks for contributing.

  11. Mayowa

    I can’t help but feel the nostalgia in your words Joel.

    There is definitely some loss associated with the jump into digital reading. Be it the total sensory experience associated with reading a book like the one above or the solitude of a book and a quite corner.

    I personally won’t be giving up real books anytime soon, but when I hear that two million Ipads have been sold already (plus kindles, nooks etc.) I think that I may soon have no choice.

    It is a trade we are making here, experience for convinience and i’m not sure it’s worth it.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Okay, Mayowa, guilty as charged! I was hit by the nostalgia bug, but let me tell you, the half hour I spent with the Nonesuch Milton yesterday was a rich part of my day, it really stood out.

      And yes, there will be a “tipping point” and then we’ll all be carting around e-readers.

      • Mayowa

        You are hereby pardoned Joel.

        I grew up reading late into the night with a torchlight or lantern, not only because it was way past my bedtime but also because there was frequently no electricity. Do i think that reading experience is much better than the vibrant ipad screen and accoutrements? Not necessarily.

        I just can’t get over the thought that something great and wonderful in that experience is lost. That desperate need for words, for worlds from ink and paper will not burn so deeply in this digital age.

        Amen to Nostalgia.



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