Authors: Alexandra Horowitz
A remarkable example of the natural paving of the land is visible in Northern Ireland, at a place called Clochán na bhFómharach, where a volcanic eruption left tens of thousands of columns of basalt standing like letterpress type well packed in its shelving.
This is understating things. The fetid seeds, innocuous-looking yellow cherries, fall seasonally and are mashed underfoot. The butyric acid in their skin makes them, smashed, single-handedly responsible for scores of people stopping and visually investigating that odor coming from the bottom of their shoes. The female tree is the responsible party; the male simply turns delightfully yellow in fall and rains its fan-shaped leaves on merry fall-color-seekers.
Well, not all of us. A disorder called prosopagnosia manifests in the inability to recognize faces at all—sometimes even, incredibly and embarrassingly, the faces of one’s parents, children, or spouse. Oliver Sacks wrote about the strangeness and severity of this condition in one of his early books of essays. The book’s title, which has almost come to stand in for the singular Sacksian approach, alludes to an event that occurred to a sufferer of face-blindness:
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
In a very strange subsequent development, Sacks has since revealed himself to be prosopagnosic, a condition he was not himself aware of for many years before writing that book in the 1980s. I cannot do justice to his reflections on his condition in a footnote (though many of his most surprising revelations appear in his own footnotes).
This story of the dip in the city’s skyline, long told by geologists and retold by John McPhee, was recently called into question by a trio of economists who found, perhaps unsurprisingly, economic forces more explanatory of the city’s building patterns. They also found the bedrock less invariant than previously described. Perhaps, as is often the case, both stories have some truth.
“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.”
“Forgettable, indistinguishable signs topped the stores, advertising pizza and cleaners.”
Paul Shaw shuddered. We were standing in front of an architectural gallery’s storefront and facing the quite ordinary-looking, quite benign sign that reported the store’s name, mailing address, web address, and opening hours. I read the text. Shaw read not only the letters, but the
. “Helvetica: the usual thing you’d expect”—that is, the kind of typeface architects like to use—“followed by avant-garde Gothic with
. Eww.” Shaw crinkled his forehead. “And then Adobe Garamond,
. . . and then with bad spacing. . . .” He trailed off, sounding bemused.
Shaw is afflicted with the disorder of knowing too much—in this case, about the design of letters. It is a disorder that makes one, as Shaw is, a formidable typographer. He is a professional letterhead. Shaw creates lettering—custom lettering and logos, whole typefaces—and studies it, as a writer and on foot. He leads an elaborate, meandering tour through Italy for a small group as keen on contemporary Roman graffito as on medieval and ancient inscriptions. In New York, he has taught calligraphy and typography at Parson’s School of Design for over two decades and has stalked Helvetica (and the various non-Helveticas) in the subway system. This malady, this
makes one seek, and see, letters. In a city, letters are everywhere.
One trouble with being human—with the human condition—is that, as with many conditions, you cannot turn it off. Even as we develop from relatively immobile, helpless infants into mobile, autonomous adults, we are more and more constrained by the ways we learn to see the world. And our world is a linguistic one, fashioned in and then described with language.
Early in life, an infant will make certain noises that have special resonance to parents. The varieties of cries, from fussy to outraged, are matched by the round warm coos of satisfaction. The infant vacillates between being a catastrophist and a purring kitten. Soon, though, nearly regardless of what his parents do, as long as they talk around him, that infant will start making different sounds. These hums, burbles, and yammers will be the sounds that make up the language or languages he hears floating above his head. His young brain magically distinguishes the parents’ language from the hums, roars, and crashes of nonlanguage sounds in the world.
For the first five years of life, it is said, children learn approximately one word
every two hours
they are awake. This fact is intended to impress, and it does. From an adult’s vantage, the prodigiousness
of the infant mind is enviable (even though we have all had that mind). Most of us struggle to remember that new, curious word we read just this morning in the newspaper. In theory, I would like my brain to sponge up words like an infant’s does, but in reality, I also find the child’s progress terrifying. Every hour, children are losing more and more ability to think without language—and without the cultural knowledge that language passes along. Every hour, children are less able to not notice words. And to me, the
of language is what is enviable.
Don’t get me wrong: I am appreciative of the language that allows me to write that I am appreciative of language. I love, covet, and collect words—silly words and finely formed words and words I’ll never use but just feel glad to know. My husband and I own hundreds of dictionaries, whose main roles in our lives are first, to wait uncomplaining until they are thumbed through by us, and second, to then offer up such masterpieces of grace and charm as
Few of these words, though, will I encounter in an ordinary day. By contrast, every day, when walking in a city, driving along a highway, or existing anyplace but deep wilderness, we are beset by dull, tedious words. Signs and storefronts and billboards and computer screens barrage us with text that we, with our language-besotted minds, cannot help but read. As I write this, I hesitantly peek out my office window, and, without my willing it, my eyes track quickly and inevitably to the text on the side of a taxi:
, it reads.
$2.50 INITIAL FARE.
On its roof, an advertising billboard commands,
. As the taxi passes, a stenciled
POST NO BILLS
is discernible on the scaffolding hulking over the sidewalk. Words are the ample cleavage of the urban environment: impossible not to look at.
Worse still, every city is dense with surfaces, and at some point in human history someone discovered that surfaces are great places
to put words and other symbols. Ancient Egypt slaveowners plastered walls with papyrus posters offering a reward for the return of runaway vassals. Greek and Roman merchants placed symbolic signs—a wooden shoe; a stone soup pot—above the doorways of their shops. And the ruins of Pompeii, which in its ashen burial preserved a day in the life of AD 76, has walls covered with notices and inscriptions for real estate (“To rent from the first day of next July, shops with floors over them, fine upper chambers . . .”), advertising gladiatorial games, and promoting electoral candidates (or opposing them: “The whole company of late risers favor [the election of] Vatia”)—as well as plain old graffiti and personal messaging: “Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly” is still inscribed on one wall, at least two millennia after Victoria stopped sneezing for good.
Today we rarely encounter a public surface completely without words. In New York City, signs identifying shops have migrated from the shop face and door onto awnings, banners, and placards thrust into the line of vision of a passing pedestrian. Should you hope to escape the linguistic attack by ducking into the subway, you will be sorely disappointed. The support columns, stair risers, and banisters in the subway system are plastered with advertisements, excited text and airbrushed photos vacantly hollering as you weave through the crowds. Before freestanding billboards came into urban spaces, a building’s windowless wall might be painted with an ad. The faded remnants of the paint still peek out from between more recent developments. (The products advertised, the lozenges and carriages of our grandparents’ time, are usually as faded as the paint.) In much of New York City, the mere presence of a stretch of wall
words on it is all the prompt a graffitist needs to spray-paint some onto it. Rarely are they wishing Victoria sweet sneezes.
So I had no concern, on heading downtown to meet Paul Shaw,
that we would not see any letters. Still, I wondered, is there any other way to see these words than as linguistic? En route, I gaped at the language that tracked me as I walked down my block, onto a bus, and through a pocket park between avenues. Everything was lettered. Officially, “lettering” describes letters specially “drawn, carved, cut, torn,” or otherwise assembled for the purpose of being displayed. More recently, the words
have become lay synonyms for lettering, although you can cause eye-rolling or lip-pursing in a typophile if you use them that way.
What I was seeing were mostly just
I saw letters on street signs and commercial signs; on flyers, telephone booths, and lampposts; as building names; on T-shirts and knapsacks with logos, affiliations, and statements of purpose; on trucks, declaring their master’s and their maker’s name. Underfoot, the text on the manhole cover
(Con Ed, NYC)
and discarded potato chip bag
(Lay’s, 150 calories)
lay alongside a mouse-sized flag announcing the application of mouse poison to this area. I waited at a bus-stop shelter with the stop name and bus line printed on it, which lettering was overpowered by an advertisement for a television show, which itself was partially covered by a flyer (“room to rent . . . from July 1st . . .”) and marred by a graffitied “
” etched into the plastic wall of the shelter. The sides of trash bins say things now. The heels of sneakers. Even my toddler son noted that the holey ventilation grate on the business end of window air conditioners is really just a concatenation of letter
s. Instructions, directions, labels, assertions, names, descriptions, suggestions, and commands abound.
Perhaps I should have challenged Shaw
to see letters. But I was walking with him not to find more letters but to see them in a different light. Shaw is in love with letters—with finding
them, making them, and, as though they were rare shy marsupials seen only at night, “investigating their habitats.” This love may come from some intrinsic Shawness, but it also comes from being a designer and researcher of letters for so long. To me, the
sign says, well, “taxi.” To a typographer, it says
. When the current version of taxicab signage first appeared, there was a low murmur of outcry among those interested in lettering. Among other missteps noted, the
are set in two separate typefaces, the kerning (spacing) on the former is so tight as to make the letters almost illegible, and the word TAXI, which features a circle around the contrast-colored
really reads “T-Axi.” There was an art—a
of art—in those letters. There was a political or personal choice, an anachronism, a misapplication of type font to signage, a readability study gone awry. There was a history in the letters, and Shaw knew it.
We met on a sunless day in February. As I approached him, grinning and waving, Shaw’s shoulders slumped and his hands dove into his pockets. His hair was dramatically unkempt. Although he glanced at me in greeting, his eyes were scouring the surfaces around us: the walls, the fire escapes, the streets, the lampposts and telephone boxes. He was, as always, looking for letters. Shaw himself was linguistically neutral: his jacket and bag had no visible letters on them.
We had decided to walk down a series of blocks across town from where we both lived, down streets unknown to us. Yet I sensed that these streets already had familiar elements to Shaw. Just as architectural styles identify a city, so too is a city recognizable by the type of lettering that predominates. Putting aside the rash
of newer, computer-font signs now topping identical cell-phone stores and delis, the lettering that exists and remains on buildings represents when a city was built, how it has evolved, and whether that evolution involved destruction or restoration. New York City’s style is hodgepodge, but with a distinctive early-twentieth-century twang. The regularity of Art Deco and Art Moderne lettering tells us that the 1920s and ’30s saw a lot of construction in the city—construction of a scale and of a quality that has largely survived. Sans-serif Gothic from the late nineteenth century also appears around town, in raised stone letters on the face of a building, for instance. Like building styles, lettering goes through fads, trends: what looks modern now will look antiquated soon enough; what is brash may soon be ordinary.