I am inside an old church with my handyman partner Paul, with whom I once worked as an assistant in his business on a part-time basis. We have been called in for a meeting, weeks or months later, after a consultation we provided the ministers and other elders of the church. In this case it was not handyman services we provided, but a recommendation for how to reprint their old Bibles and other holy books. They are unhappy with how things turned out and we have been brought back in for them to point out what they do not like.
On handyman jobs, Paul is my mentor, the one with a lifetime of experience, and takes the lead in consulting with customers. In this situation, however, our roles are reversed. Here, it is me who has decades of experience as a typographer in countless situations with all manner of clients. Paul is along for the ride on this one, but has a good eye. I am glad to have him along, even if just for the company and moral support.
The denomination of the church is unclear, but it has the feel of a very old-line religion, not a newer Protestant or evangelical church. The interior architecture is of old polished woods, with light-colored stucco walls in shades of muslin, tan, and taupe. Aside from the walls, everything consists of dark browns and sepias. There is not much lighting, so the ambience inside is dim and overall somewhat dark. The atmosphere weighs on my spirits a bit.
I rarely pay much attention to clothing, but the ministers and elders I am talking with are wearing old, traditional attire of some type, not from today’s era. The feel is perhaps 1800s, possibly even 1600s to 1700s, depending on the man. There are no suits and ties as would be the case today. There are no women among the group. Everything is completely old school.
As we are talking, I become aware that a church service is going on adjacent to us. The elders and I are off to the side of the congregation, in an open wing of the building adjacent to the main sanctuary where the service is being conducted. I attempt to keep my voice down out of politeness, but sometimes the others I am talking with do not. Any possibility we might disturb those attending the service does not seem to be a concern for them.
It seems the main problem is with the typeface of the newly reprinted Bibles and other holy books. It is purely a matter of style, not about the quality of the printing itself or the binding of the books. I was the one who chose the typeface, and thought it had the requisite combination of a more fresh look but also one that honored the vintage characteristics of their previous typeface — a consideration we had all agreed on before the project was submitted to the printer.
They are not able to communicate to me exactly why they do not like the replacement typeface. They do not possess the knowledge or the eye for typographic design and detail for that. But in looking over the reprinted books they are showing me, I can perhaps see why they are not so enamored of it. I personally think the newer typeface looks fine, but with the distance of some weeks after having last looked at it, it does perhaps lack something.
I believe I see what that might be: The new typeface is too consistent in its features from one letter and character to the next. It has all the major, desired characteristics of a calligraphically inspired font drawn with an old-fashioned nibbed pen that we had all sought, but it is a little too sleek. All the minor irregularities, real-world artifacts, and slight quirks that you would see if the font were hand-drawn are missing. It is too perfect and smooth in its appearance with a resulting feel that is… not sterile exactly, but lacking in personality and warmth.
The difference between the new printing and the old is not huge, but it has been enough to upset the church elders’ sensibilities. My personal reaction is that the old font was too antiquated and stodgy, but the new font is too pristine.
The elders are still fond of the old font, but they not want to go back to it. They want to find another one that somehow fuses the spirit and character of the old with a newer font. For my taste, that character is by now a bit hackneyed and so I am not sure how we are going to bridge the gap.
It is not going to be an easy task finding something pleasing both to these people and myself at the same time, and I am not sure how to proceed.
But there is something else. All along, I have been noticing that some of these books are much more than just books. Some of them are very large, about three times the size of a normal book. What would normally be the book itself is, in this case, actually just a book-shaped holder or container for other books inside of it.
The book-shaped containers are composed of parallel horizontal compartments running the width of each “page,” one set of compartments on the left-hand page and another set on the right-hand page. Each horizontal compartment is several inches tall, measured along the page’s vertical axis, though they vary — and there are perhaps four compartments from the top of the enclosing “holder” page to the bottom.
Some of the dividers between compartments are lined along the top edge or rib with something like beads or pearls. A smaller book is then nested inside each compartment, its pages laid open. To fit inside, the width of each book is necessarily considerably wider than it is tall. Some of these books — preexisting examples prior to reprinting — themselves have related decorative treatments, with some of their pages containing horizontal stitching or beads extending from the inner gutter of each page to the outer edge of each. Interspersed in between these are the blocks of printing that comprise the books’ text.
The newly reprinted book samples do not feature much if any of this type of ornamentation. Instead, any added decoration or variation is confined mostly to the paper type or color. For instance, I notice one page of text that has been printed on translucent vellum rather than regular paper. Also, on this page the ink is black with a more antiseptic, less organic feel. This is an exception to the dark brown-colored inks, which vary in hue, used on the earlier, preexisting Bibles and books.
It may be that these differences beyond just the font question are generating some of the elders’ dissatisfaction as well, which I still need to determine.
I can see, too, that, as with the church itself, the colors of all the books, old and new, are a wide palette of browns, sepias, and stucco. This, at least, is one thing about which there is no dispute or desire for change.
One of the ministers then gets up on a podium to demonstrate another flaw with the printing. His features are bony and angular, his expression somewhat crotchety. He holds a Bible or other similar holy book in a hand held down low, with the rest of his body stretched up high, his other arm gesturing, as if sermonizing to his congregation. He says that in this position with the book not up close to his eyes, he cannot easily look down and read the pages because the print is not bold enough.
I take that into consideration to mull over. As things proceed, I turn to another minister or elder, softer and more amiable, whom I begin to talk with to get more clarification on things.
The books and Bibles we have been examining are set out for display in storage cases similar in construction to retail jewelry display cases, except without the glass covers on top. We begin making another round of the various books sitting in these cases, their pages open for viewing, as I look once again at the different book examples to refresh my memory of the issues that need resolved. The display/storage cases are stacked next together tightly, however, and I find I must crawl underneath them to get from one case to the next, before I can stand up in front of the case to look at the contents once again.
After talking with this latter elder and reexamining the books a while longer, I become aware that the church service has now ended. People are milling about in fellowship and conversation as they slowly make their way to the doors before leaving. I notice that one of the congregants is my sister, whom I do not see very often. Because of my involvement with the elder, however, I do not get a chance to say hi.
I return to the quandary of the printing and font issues with the Bibles and other holy books, still searching for a resolution.
But then, still no closer to an answer, I awaken.