Fake Book Project: ‘A Brief History of Perelorn’

Clearly, this is hard to read. Click on
the image to open a PDF version.

A page from The Story of Oxford, by S.P.B. Mais, 1951

A long time ago, I had to do a quick metal typesetting thing for a class, and ever since then I’ve wanted to redo it for about ninety really good reasons, the biggest one being I didn’t left justify the body text like I should’ve done. Plus there’s a typo in “Dardanelles.” And, in any case, the whole plan had been to make a whole book, with this one page as just the very start of the idea. But, you know, life happens, as usual, and so here I am a billion years later and only now finally ready (knock wood) to redo this thing. Let’s call it side project number 1. Side project number 2 is a special type of print-on-demand magazine. Side project number 3 is just lots more drawings, so I can get my drawing muscles warmed back up. Side project zero is a bunch of small quick artist’s books that I need for a talk I’m giving in a few short weeks. Meanwhile, the thing that’s the main project is, of course, the continuing search for a way to keep all these projects alive and well and happening.

The design of the original piece was inspired by a thrift store book about the history of Oxford. It’s not a nice book to handle nor an especially well-designed one, but I like it, anyway. Maybe because the text is a lot of fun, full of arcana about a place I’ve dreamed about a bunch but will probably never go to, although I’ve been not far away. (If we ever do visit, first thing I’ll do is go find Will and Lyra’s bench.) So, today I tried to figure out what the actual font was in the book and how everything was laid out. Turns out it’s set in 11 pt. Monotype Baskerville, which I have a sort of close version of, except it’s not the expert set, so no small caps, ligatures or old style figures. Getting the margins was only a little tricky because the text is often printed super-crooked, so a lot of the measurements are just opinions more than anything.

The text is partially from my notes on the imaginary country of Utaloza and also from my old zine, Whirlygig, which was about a different imaginary country.

Notice, by the way, that even a quick glance at these low-res images reveals that not all Baskervilles are made alike (my page doesn’t have quite the “presence” of the page from the Oxford guidebook). You probably know how this works already if you’re a typographer, but I’m mostly kind of an illustrator and so I’m still learning this stuff. Basically, an impression from actual inked type onto sort of cheap rough paper is not the same thing as a non-impression made by letter-shaped pixels onto a flat screen. Ink spreads, is the main issue, so printed characters gain a very slight amount of weight (or it should be only a slight gain, at least). But another issue is just the simple one that Monotype-branded Baskerville was drawn a little bit differently from whatever kind of Baskerville is on my machine. Which I’ve heard is the sort of insider lore that can animate pretty rough discussions between typophiles. For me, it just begs the usual question, why do these fake pages at all if they’re nearly impossible to do exactly right? Or, not impossible, but impractical given my resources. Well, I have a few small thoughts about that, but they’re not 100% fully-formed yet. Hope they will be by the time I have to talk to an audience about this work.

Also notice that page design of the Oxford exemplar features a pretty wide column. Probably too wide, but maybe only by a little (still training my eye to decide between too much and just right). The real book is 8.5″x6.5″, which seems a little bit of a weird shape. I mean, it’s not really a handy shape for a pocket travel guide, although at 88 pages, it’s thin enough you could carry it around without ending up resenting its weirdness. Of course, I can’t tell that anyone ever did carry it around anywhere, like, for instance, in the actual city of Oxford. The book contains no marginalia, underlinings, dog ears, or receipts used as bookmarks. But even the absence of all these normal clues to how a book was used and thought about points up an interesting issue: the fake digital page won’t acquire marks the way real paper does, and so won’t acquire history (if you ignore all the myriad ways it’s possible to edit a digital image, because that undermines the point I desperately want to make, and we can’t have that, because then I’d have to go and think about it some more, which I guess I’ll do anyway, so never mind).

My favorite quote from the actual book: “For tea . . . there was no limit imposed on the number of muffins, crumpets, toasted tea cake or patisseries . . . .” Knocking wood again, I’ve lost twenty pounds since finishing grad school by imposing huge limits on muffins and crumpets. So I’m a bit nostalgic about pastry these days.

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