Doryphoric Pedantry, Reading Brains, and Sans SerifLeave a comment
September 30, 2015 by libroshombre
My inner doryphore emerges whenever someone claims that emergence of computers means that “this is the end of print books.” Where books and reading are concerned I’m a true pedant, or doryphore, a “pedantic or persistent critic,” with “duryphore” coming from the Greek “doruphoros, meaning “spear carrier.” Such a plethora of scientific proof of the physical and intellectual superiority of reading print books over digital ones has emerged in the past few years that commenting on it seems redundant. Nonetheless, reading print on paper is clearly faster and better comprehended than reading the same information on screens, and the smaller the screen the slower the reading and lower the comprehension. Period.
In the most recent of a stream of such evidence, a reader passed along “What Does Watching TV vs. Reading a Good Books Do to Your Brain?,” a Care2.com article that cites a number of studies showing the benefits of print reading. For example, one study from last April’s Cerebral Cortex Journal, for example, “confirmed negative effects of TV viewing on verbal intelligence quotient.” A Psychology Today article, titled “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function” linked to an Emory University study that “found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function.”
The Care2.com article also linked to a University of Sussex study that “found that participants who were stressed needed only six minutes of reading for their heart rates and muscle tension to subside … reducing stress levels by 68%.” It’s also reduced by listening to music (61%), drinking coffee (54%), or taking a walk (42%). Give me books every time, if they have serifs.
American Heritage Dictionary defines “serif” as “a fine line finishing off the main strokes of a letter, as at the top and bottom of M.” Its origins are obscure, but according to ILoveTypography.com, “the humble serif can be traced back to ancient Rome. Before an inscription was carved into stone, the letters were first painted on. Anyone who has tried painting letters will know that one is left with slightly wider sections at the ends of the brush strokes. The stone carvers would then faithfully carve out the letters including the flares at the ends of the strokes – thus was born the serif.”
Library school professors said serifs were intentional and help lead readers’ eyes to the following letters, thereby, compared to letters without serifs, or “sanserif.” However, Wikipedia states that while “serified fonts are widely used for body text because they are considered easier to read than sanserif fonts … scientific study on this topic has been inconclusive.”
Serifs come in several flavors. Old West wanted posters preferred heavy “slab” serifs. The earlier Old Style or Humanist typefaces date back to when the first Italian printers added them to Gutenberg’s hard-to-read blackletter fonts. When it comes to making modern headlines and business signage legible, sanserif rules.
The Swiss type designer Adrian Frutiger died last week, and his passing provides occasion to celebrate his typographical achievements. According to his NYTimes obituary, Frutiger “created some 40 fonts, a vast number for one lifetime. Praised for an elegant readability that belied their rigorous engineering, his typefaces over the years have graced signs in the Paris Metro and many international airports … Perhaps Mr. Frutiger’s most ubiquitous typeface is also the least obtrusive: OCR-B, the optical-character font he designed in 1968 … [t]hat’s the one on the bottom of all out checks.” He also “realized that fonts that looked good in books did not work well on signs: the characters lacked enough air to be readable at a distance,” so Frutiger designed sanserif fonts that were “legible at many paces and from many angles.”
That’s a consideration for librarians, too. Our public library uses sanserif on its signs that indicate the Fiction, Graphic Literature, Large Print, and other parts of it collection. Library staff constantly fine-tunes the signage to make it easier for the readers to navigate the collection. So our public library uses sanserif fonts because some things, like print books, are simply more readable.