There’s been some behind-the-scenes conversation at ABBA Towers in recent days about the fonts we like to use when writing. Perpetua, Times New Roman, Calibri, Hoefler Text, Kristen ITC, Comic Sans MS, Garamond and even good old Courier have had their champions. Personally I’m still a longhand kid, which means that I favour Biro Scrawl 12pt for my first drafts. When it comes to writing things up I tend to default to Times New Roman, though I’ve been known to flirt with Garamond when TNR was looking the other way.
Does the choice of font matter? Certainly, it can help set the mood. A fun-loving, bouncy font may engender a book with the same qualities. Conversely my Garamondian flings have tended to coincide with attempts at historical writing, appropriate to that time-honoured typeface. If I ever wanted to set a story in the office of a hardboiled L.A. private eye, I’d be seriously tempted to write it in typewriterish Courier. Fonts are useful in editing, too. As Penny Dolan pointed out in a previous ABBA post, a change of font can be an effective distancing technique, helping writers achieve the necessary detachment from their own words.
If fonts matter to writers, they’re no less important to readers. Would the US Declaration of Independence, for example, have been taken as seriously had it been printed in Courier, Boopee or Planet Benson 2? That the answer is "No" I hold to be self-evident. Publishers (with or without the cooperation of authors) spend a good deal of time agonizing over choices of font, just as they do over covers, strap lines and everything else that goes to make a book the memorably sensuous and tactile experience that it is.
This may be changing, however. With the advent of e-books and other new technologies, readers are likely to have more control than before over the appearance and “feel” of the books they read, choosing their own fonts and layouts according to personal comfort and taste. Arguably this is to be celebrated as a democratization of art, a welcome shift in power from producer to consumer. But how far we can push this idea? Does it matter if we prefer Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Photoshopped into a different shade of yellow – or maybe pink? Perhaps we wish to hear Beethoven’s 5th in A minor instead of C minor? Or shall we watch The Battleship Potemkin in colour? Digital technology is there to oblige. This is all very exhilarating, but Van Gogh chose his palette, and Beethoven his key, for reasons that seemed good – and perhaps fundamental – to them. Who is to say which aspects of a work of art are “essential” and which mere “decoration”? When it comes to books, whose is the last word?