Two CONSTANTS reign over the proportions of a well-made book: the hand and the eye. A healthy eye is always about two spans away from the book page, and all people hold a book in the same manner. The format of a book is determined by its purpose.
There are two major categories of books: those we place on a table for serious study, and those we read while leaning back in a chair, in an easy chair, or while travelling by train. The books we study should rest at a slant in front of us. (Tschichold, 1991: 36)
The reading position has nothing to do with the size and dimension of textbooks. Their formats range from large octavo to large quarto. Still larger formats are the exception. (Tschichold, 1991: 37)
Much typography is based, for the sake of convenience, on standard industrial paper sizes (…). But many typographic projects begin with the opportunity and necessity of selecting the dimensions of the page. (Bringhurst, 1996: 143)
Book pages come in many proportions, i.e. relationships between width and height. Everybody knows, at least from hearsay, the proportion of the Golden Section, exactly 1:1.618. A ratio of 5:8 is no more than an approximation of the Golden Section. It would be difficult to maintain the same opinion about a ratio of 2:3. (Tschichold, 1991: 37)
Harmony between page size and type area is achieved when both have the same proportions. If efforts are successful to combine page format and type area into an indissoluble unit, then the margin proportions become functions of page format and overall construction and thus are inseparable from either. Margin proportions do not dominate the page of a book. Rather, they arise from the page format and the law of form, the canon. (Tschichold, 1991: 42)
Sizing and spacing type, like composing and performing music or applying paint to a canvas, is largely concerned with intervals and differences. As the texture builds, precise relationships and very small discrepancies are easily perceived. Establishing the overall dimensions of the page is more matter of limits the sums.
The page is a piece of paper. It is also a visible and tangible proportion, silently sounding the thoroughbass of the book. On it lies the textblock [type area], which must answer to the page. The two together – page and textblock – produce an antiphonal geometry. That geometry alone can bond the reader to the book. Or conversely, it can put the reader to sleep, or put the reader’s nerves on edge, or drive the reader away. (Bringhurst, 1996: 145)
The proportions that are useful for the shapes of pages are equally useful in shaping the text block. This is not to say that the proportions of the textblock and the page should be the same. They often were the same in medieval books. In the Renaissance, many typographers preferred a more polyphonic page, in which the proportions of page and textblock differ. But it is pointless for them to differ unless, like intervals in music, they differ to a clear and purposeful degree.
For all the beauty of pure geometry, a perfectly square block of type on a perfectly square page with even margins all around is a form unlikely to encourage reading. Reading, like walking, involves navigation – and the square block of type on a square block of paper is short of basic landmarks and clues. To give the reader a sense of direction, and the page a sense of liveliness and poise, it is necessary to break this inexorable sameness and find a new balance of another kind. Some space must be narrow so that other space may be wide, and some space emptied so that other space may be filled. (Bringhurst, 1996: 163)
Bringhurst, R. (1996). The Elements of Typographic Style. Seattle, Washington, USA: Hartley & Marks
Tschichold, J. (1991). The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design. London, England: Lund Humphries
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