scathing review of Just My Type by Paul Shaw

Nick Shinn's picture

And what do you think of it Peter?

.00's picture

I think Paul was right on the money. Especially his "nervous hummingbird" comment.

Bendy's picture

I'm glad someone was able to articulate what was wrong with this book. But there was also stuff right with it.

I enjoyed it as entertainment; it seemed to me that the brief of the book was to popularise type design — an arcane abstraction to most people, and a funky hobby for dilettantes. Personally I think it's a good thing to bring type design into the consciousness of the masses, as it's a massively invisible industry. I'd even say it's slightly worth sacrificing factual accuracy to make it tangible to those who've never stopped to consider that every fullstop they've ever seen has been shaped by a real person.

At the same time, I did find the book irritating in glossing over/joking about type designers' valid perspectives. I wrote to the editor with factual corrections, which I've never done before. Mixing up Haas Unica and Helvetica is just careless.

There was some event here a while back where Simon Garfield was doing readings from the book — it seemed very much an «amuse-bouche» — for people who knew enough to laugh at Comic Sans, but not enough to get over it. For me it's an oversimplified view of a select few issues, and I'm glad it didn't pretend to be a serious essay.

There's a whole lot more to the story than Simon uncovered, but I think on balance I'm glad it exists to pique people's interest in an undiscovered topic. I sort of hope there won't be a sequel, though.

Miss Tiffany's picture

I've not read it. But I will strongly disagree with you Bendy. I think it is a total disservice to the reader to not be as accurate as possible. One should skip over entertainment if it is at the expense of accuracy. If for no other reason that to help those who do read have the right information.

Bendy's picture

Glad to have your disagreement, Tiffany! :)

Let me try to be more precise myself: I don't think Simon intended to be inaccurate, and I can forgive him that in his enthusiasm, which I think will serve to interest others in something they've never considered before. Detailed research might not be very accessible to the general public. For those of us who are informed, we can step back from the inaccuracies, no?

JamesT's picture

I agree with you, Bendy. While it is unfortunate that there are issues with factual correctness, popularizing the industry is a worthwhile goal. I guess I appreciate the intent of the book but take issue with its execution.

dezcom's picture

It is a book written as if it were done by news reporter who was filling in for the regular beat writer. This writer has figured out enough to get it in for deadline but not enough to do more than skim through.
I think his heart was in the right place but he still gets "case dismissed" do to a bad case of "insufficient evidence." He should have interviewed a bunch of real type people and then have a good technical editor who knows the field look over the thing.

ebensorkin's picture

If was an article then I might be somewhat sympathetic to Bendy's point of view in some contexts. But it isn't. It is a book. Books can be delayed until they are done and facts sorted out. Really he could have given the manuscript to anybody a bit competent and have dealt with quite a lot of what is wrong. No, this was a quick rush for some money or carelessness or both. This isn't a case of mere "enthusiasm".

Bert Vanderveen's picture

Maybe one should view this as what it is: a bunch of articles collected in the shape of a book. And as anyone will know journalists are not too precise when it comes to facts.

(I am not going to buy this, by the way.)

Si_Daniels's picture

>I am not going to buy this, by the way

Buy your own argument, or buy the book? ;-)

butterick's picture

I read Garfield's book last night. Yes, there are a few groaners and boners. But overall I think Shaw's criticisms are a bit sour and persnickety.

As Shaw concedes, "This is a book that the uninitiated will find enthralling and entertaining." There you have it. It may be true that someone "who actually know[s] something about type design … will find it maddening." But the book wasn't written for them. It's hardly sporting to criticize Garfield for satisfying his target audience — readers with a casual interest in typography — at the expense of sophisticated readers. No book can be all things to all people. Nobody criticizes Angry Birds for its unrealistic physics.

To me, any book that introduces readers to the pleasures of typography is a good book, and ultimately makes life better for every professional typographer and type designer. Garfield's book was reviewed by Janet Maslin in the New York Times. He wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. So it's getting a lot of good press and selling a lot of copies. You may think that's extrinsic to the merits of the book. I don't. I think that's a compliment to Garfield specifically, and a ratification generally of how far typography has come in the public consciousness.

In the book, Matthew Carter says jokingly that 20 years ago, he still preferred to tell people he was a brain surgeon to avoid explaining type design for the umpteenth time. But these days, people know that type and type designers exist. Of course, you often hear "You do typography? That's so cool! I love Helvetica!" (or "I love Helvetica!") But you've got to start somewhere. I'd rather start there, than with brain surgery.

I agree with Shaw's point that the book doesn't do much to tie together its anecdotes. I'll go a step further and say that it's editorially haphazard. In the first 30 pages, Garfield's main topic is Steve Jobs, then Comic Sans, then Gutenberg. It keeps jumping around from there. (Though maybe that's the intended gist of the title — by "Just My Type," Garfield means "Just The Things About Type That I, Simon Garfield, Am Interested In")

Similar problem with level of detail. Garfield doesn't achieve a consistent tone — one page he's conducting a breezy tour of typography, the next he's on a detailed digression into some microtopic. This book — and this is true of most nonfiction books — would've benefited from one more round of editing and rewriting.

But would I recommend the book to casual readers? Sure. In the end I don't think these criticisms are showstoppers because the book doesn't ask to be read start to finish. You're supposed to take what interests you and leave the rest, and then pass it along to a friend. Whether Garfield's book recruits another 50 people or 50,000 people into the typography army, that's great for typography.

William Berkson's picture

I'll probably get this out of the library, as I'm cheap and it doesn't look like something I'd want to keep around for reference. It sounds like it has both the virtues and the vices of much contemporary journalism. I agree with Matthew that we should appreciate the virtues, namely that it is extremely well written, in the sense of being easy and fun to read. I know this is no easy feat, and one which I as a writer respect and admire.

But while good and entertaining writing is a great achievement, it to my mind doesn't excuse the vices which this book has, judging by Paul Shaw's review, and knowing that Paul is an extraordinarily knowledgeable scholar of type. Some journalists have thought it was important to get it right. In fact, for many was a matter of principle, a first duty.

I think it is really regrettable that this ethic of journalism has been abandoned by many, including evidently Mr. Garfield. It is evident to me that neither he nor his publisher bothered to have this vetted by an expert such as Shaw. Then he could have easily avoided outright blunders. If it was vetted and the reviewer didn't catch the blunders, then my apologies to Mr. Garfield and his publisher. But this does seem a case of abandoning the best traditions of journalism, which I am sad to see.

JamesM's picture

Unfortunately most publishers do not edit and fact check to the degree they used to. This is often left largely to the author to do at his/her own expense.

William Berkson's picture

>own expense

I don't think this is an issue of expense. In my experience, it is not hard to find experts who will vet a book for blunders gratis.

dezcom's picture

Bill, Don't bother buying the book. If you MUST read it, borrow mine.

Richard Fink's picture

+1 to butterick's comment

Look, any book with blatant inaccuracies - innacuracies easily spotted and fixed, too - hasn't earned its purchase price. And any reviewer would be obligated to point them out.

What's significant is that a book with "fonts" in the title would sell pretty well. At least from what I hear.

The idea that what around here usually gets called a typeface but the rest of the world calls a font has penetrated the consciousness of the average person is kind of revolutionary in the sense that a page in history has turned.
If Butterick's book is selling decently - and I certainly hope so - it's a piggy-back ride on the same social development.

 ◊ A couple of years ago, while watching an episode of the TV
  series House, there was a scene between House and his oncologist
  friend (the 'Watson' character - his name is escaping me)
  which included a snappy comeback line in response to something
  House said:"What did you do? Use a different font?"

  A line like that in a hit TV series was unthinkable
  until recently. If the line was "What did you do? Change the
  typeface?" no viewer would have had a frame of reference for it.

There's clearly a change in meaning and perception regarding type and typography that is unprecedented.

.00's picture

So more people use the word font, or typeface. Big **** deal.

The book still sucks!

Richard Fink's picture

>So more people use the word font, or typeface. Big **** deal.

Just an observation, not an admonishment. What everybody calls a standup bass, or an acoustic bass, I call a double bass when talking with fellow musicians who I know are familiar with the term.

And I disagree, how you define what your product IS is a very big deal.

I have the book on order - I don't know if it sucks or not but I'll come back and join the chorus when I've read it.

dezcom's picture

Viola de gamba, violincello, pianoforte, klavier, etc., may sound odd to those who have not been privy to a music education. But if you say you can play one but really can't? Everyone knows a sour note when they hear one ;-)

@Richard: Save your money!

Richard Fink's picture


Point taken. (Even if I did have to dig it out with a spade. ;)

Naw, I bought it for the same reason I keep on using Internet Explorer 8, to remain a proud member of "The Great Unwashed".

Plus, debunking - as has been going on here in this thread - has a value, I think.
They can't all be gems. I like the book Stop Stealing Sheep, but it has a weird title and if a book, for whatever reason, can't connect with a substantial readership, well, the tree has fallen in the forest and unfortunately nobody's there to appreciate it.

My main point, I guess, is that the target market is lot larger than it used to be.

nina's picture

Huh, the article has disappeared? I'm getting a 404 now.

.00's picture

Salon may have lost interest, but the review is still up on Print's site:

dan_reynolds's picture

Nina, I believe that Salon just republishes Paul's content from Print's Imprint blog. Here is the original Imprint piece, still up and running –

Awesomely, Paul goes into even more depth in his own blog. His review is so long that he made two posts out of it –—just-my-type—part-one/ and—just-my-type—part-two/

See also more from him on this at –—corrections/ and—some-history-about-arial/

nina's picture


Richard Fink's picture

I haven't looked with regards to this particular book, but the idea that, today, a p-book gets published without a web page/site/blog of some kind to go along with it is, nuts.

That's where errata can and should be posted and debate can take place that can actually enhance the sales of the book.

Even better, an e-book is easily corrected and an update issued. Designer/educator David Bergsland takes this approach with Practical Font Design and his new Fontographer book.

BTW - I got the book some days ago and finally got a chance to rip through it quickly during a lengthy wait at a doctor's office. I've enjoyed it so far.

I need to go back and read Paul's review and refresh myself on exactly what his beef is.

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