Fonts & Encodings: Informative, Complete, Witty

In the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, somwhere in the center of the US state of Minnesota, broadcaster Garrison Keillor tells of of a place called Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, a place so complete that “if you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it.”

The newest O’Reilly release, Fonts & Encodings(by Yannis Haralambous, translated from the French by P. Scott Horne, ISBN 978-0-596-10242-9, USD $59.99) is something like that, only not in the passive voice so much–of the numerous references on digital typography we’ve reviewed, and with respect to the current state of the art, it is the closest thing that currently exists to a complete reference on Unicode and the state of that art.

As things stand in digital design and type right now, if it’s not in this book, chances are, you don’t need it all that much.

Reach and Range

When it comes to sheer information, this work is an embarrassment of riches. Starting from the earliest days we trace some history through ASCII and EBCIDIC into the prese¤nt day, where Unicode is the state of the current art.

It’s not just about history, though; plenty of technical data and explanations encounter each needful exhibition. Along the way, we get close looks at how Unicode is structured; font management and creation on a variety of utilities (FontLab Studio and George Williams’ FontForge are prominently featured with detailed directions that could just about replace their respective manuals, such as they exist); typeface classifications, and neat under-the-hood looks at how TrueType, OpenType, PostScript, and AAT font formats work.

Philosophy and Style

The danger with pulling such an encylopaedic knowledge store between two covers of a book is that the information is so dense and involved that the resulting product would be dry and dull. Happily, by infusing philosophy and a sense of humor into the work it remains readable and unexpectledly lively for such a technical remit. Take, for example, the ¤, or the universal currency symbol. A member of many font sets, it is illuminated by the author with a certain blunt humor:

The author has never seen this symbol in used in text and cannot even imagine any use for it.

And there are numerous references references to the great Hermann Zapf, who, in a description of AAT’s “Zapf” Table, reads thusly:

The name of this table is inspired by a great font designer who shall remain nameless

Thus this book becomes the first technical reference text we’re aware that actually contains a running gag.

There is a subtext throughout of a sort of semantic philosophy that will cause the reader to examine the subject of fonts and encodings in a perhaps a deeper way. In the opening the reader is explained the structure of the book using the taiji – otherwise known as the yin/yang symbol. Fonts depend on encodings to be used, and encodings need fonts to be expressed. As explained, there’s a clear philosophical distinction between the term ‘glyph’ and ‘character’ (the same as with font and encoding), and the author succeeds in demonstrating why it’s a necessary thing to know. As it turns out, the subject of the book is a rather deep intellectual well.

After all that, though, it must be said that one needn’t be looking for a philosophical education to make use of this book. There is even hints in the introduction for the most effective use of the text by a variety of audiences. Above all, there shines an intense passion that informs the text and makes it readable and warm.

We think that if you care about, use, or think about digital type, you need to check into this book.