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Fonts and Encodings

Yiannis Haralambous
Published by O'Reilly Media
ISBN:978-0-596-10242-5
1037 pages
£ 37.50
Published: October 2007
reviewed by Gavin Inglis
   in the December 2007 issue (pdf), (html)
bookcover  

Computer books are normally as transient as the systems they document. Look in any charity shop and you'll find weighty volumes on Java 1.1, Photoshop 4.0 or HTML 3.2. Even in recent months, retailers have been reaching for books on ``MacOS X v10.4 Tiger'' and loading up the return trolleys.

This means any work with a hope of permanence is to be welcomed. Enter Fonts and Encodings, a thousand page monster written by a man so dedicated to getting type correct that he developed his own digital typography system named with a non-ASCII character: **OMEGA**.

This is a volume which combines history, aesthetics and dizzying amounts of technical detail. Indeed there are a number of suggested ways to consume it based on the reader's area of interest, be it font design, software development or just obsessive purchasing of elegant fonts.

The introduction features a history of letters and their forms, with vintage illustrations of letterpress typesetting. Chapter 1 is a history covering the period before Unicode, from punched cards to MIME encoding.

Did you know that ISO 8859-14 (Latin-8) is dedicated to Celtic languages? Or that the mathematical characters which look like sigma and pi are in fact larger, completely separate characters? If you are already drifting off, this may not be the book for you. Otherwise, this may be one publication you cannot live without. It maintains a laudable global and historical perspective.

Chapters 2 to 5 concentrate on Unicode: its organisation, properties and quirks. At one hundred and thirty pages, this section will probably go too deep for most readers, although the history and philosophy are illuminating. Here we can see the picturesque Cherokee script ... or the Glagolithic, a predecessor to Cyrillic, invented by Saint Cyril in AD 862 for translation of the Scriptures into Old Church Slavonic. The author's deep understanding is valuable, given that Unicode concerns itself with all living writing systems, and most historic ones. These chapters could easily have been published as a self-contained introduction to Unicode.

Chapters 6 to 8 are less culturally interesting but likely to be of more practical use, covering font management in Windows, MacOS and the X Window System. The material here covers basics that tend to get overlooked by the casual user. Sadly, this section is already out of date with the omission of Vista.

Chapter 9 is for the hardcore TeX and **OMEGA** enthusiasts. Of more general interest is chapter 10, with its discussion of fonts and the web. Beginning with the bad old days of tags, it rolls through Microsoft's proprietary font embedding technology (which only works with Internet Explorer on Windows), type facilities in Scalable Vector Graphics, and includes esoterica like using the elusive font-size-adjust property to match x-heights for legibility.

Chapter 11 will be an utter joy for font enthusiasts. It provides a compact but comprehensive history of typefaces, from Gutenberg to the Core Fonts for the Web. Three pages are devoted to Claude Garamond and the evolution of the typeface named after him. Caslon, Baskerville and Didot all appear, as do slab serifs, cubist lettering, the Nazi font Tannenberg, and of course, Helvetica. There are forty pages bursting with type samples. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to systems of font classification, including Vox, Alessandrini, IBM and Panose-1.

The body of the book concludes with chapters 12 to 14 on actually creating fonts. Although the material is of general use, the software explored in depth is the commercial package FontLab and the open source alternative FontForge. Chapter 13, on optimising a rasterisation, is going to be of minority interest but chapter 14 explores the advanced features offered by Open Type (and Apple's AAT) in some depth.

Add 390 pages of appendices documenting font formats, and a little bit about Bezier curves, and Fonts and Encodings is complete. It is an enduring volume which pulls off the rare trick of combining history, commentary and raw hands-dirty technical detail, while still remaining an enjoyable read. Obviously written by somebody with great enthusiasm for his field, this book must be the culmination of many years of work. For anybody serious about computer type, this is both a fascinating briefing and a one-stop essential reference.

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