Describe Me the FORM I Will Tell You the CONTENT.

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Leiden Uninersity
Faculty of Arts
English Department
Book and Digital Media Studies

Describe Me the FORM I Will Tell You the CONTENT.

Comments Paul F. Grendler, ‘Form and Function in Italian Renaissance Popular Books’, Renaissance Quarterly, 46 (1993), pp. 451-485

Olivier Nyirubugara
16 October 2005

Olivier Nyirubugara, June 2005

Olivier Nyirubugara
Graduate in Publishing and Digital Media Studies
Graduate in American Literature.

I had not planned to comment this text but I have to because it provides essential information that Bringhurst’s “Grand Design” failed to provide. Since I have already dealt with the theoretical part of the form-content issue in an earlier posting on Bringhurst, I would like to focus on the many examples (demonstrations) provided by Grendler.

I have first to admit that I marvelled at this impeccable text. Its length (26 pages) had somehow discouraged me from reading it. I thought I was going to read it en diagonale but when I started I could not even stop a second to drink my coffee. The reason is because I had found an answer to my question ( posed in my previous posting) to know which form or letter type was meant for which sort of book.

What I liked in this text, is that there are a few theories/declarations and many examples/demonstrations. The very first paragraph, which reads “Form and Function are closely connected in books” (P.451) is a good example of theory, which needs immediate and clear example/demonstration for it to be accepted and understood. Bringhurst limited himself at this stage and failed to demonstrate his sayings. The four case studies are full of such demonstrations.

Let me just pick one good example of an unambiguous demonstration. Discussing the Book of Hours, Grendler writes on page 470: “The FORM or physical characteristics of the Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis informed readers of its CONTENT, PURPOSE, and intended READERSHIP. GOTHIC letters signalled LATIN. RED and BLACK meant LITURGICAL use. The combination pointed to a semi-liturgical religious text, a prayerbook. SMALL SIZE, FEW LINES on a page, and numerous ILLUSTRATIONS indicated POPULAR readership”.

The above quotation is just what I needed. I can now visit any Italian Renaissance museum and say with confidence that this book was intended for this category of people because it has this or that size, this or that letter type,…I know now a number of essential typographic elements as far as the Italian renaissance is concerned:1. that small-sized and heavily illustrated books are meant for a popular not highly educated readership; 2. that gothic letters indicate most likely a Latin text; 3. that a title page with both Gothic and Roman letters is for a popular book;4.that “a large folio-sized Latin volume…in Gothic type is likely to be a work of theology or law..”(p.452)…I cannot list all I have discovered without copying the whole article. I have rather noted this mathematical formula in my pocket block note: form=content; gothic=Latin; Red & Black=liturgical work; small size &many illustrations=popular book;…

To conclude, I still have a preoccupation of knowing how all this applies to present modern books. Which types indicate which kind of book and is meant for which readership? Some books can be immediately identified as child books, church books, dictionaries, encyclopaedia,.. but what about the others? I hope I will find an answer in further readings.

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