Books versus Covers

Back when I was a young scholar there were several things one learned that violated the “never judge a book by its cover” rule. One was that when you saw a disheveled fellow walking down the street talking to himself, you could reliably assume that he was disturbed and probably not taking his medication. And you could assume that a nicely typeset and printed article was worth reading.

Things have changed.

Now when you see an unshaven fellow in rumpled clothes walking down the street conducting an animated conversation you can’t assume that he’s off his Chlorpromazine. He might just as well be an investment banker working on a big deal.

Why did typsetting signify quality writing? Dating from the days of Aldus Manutius typesetting a book or an article attractively in justified columns using proportionally spaced fonts was a time-consuming task involving expensive skilled labor. Because of that high up-front cost, publishers insisted on strong controls on what made it to press. Thus we had powerful editors making decisions about what got into commercial magazines and books. And we had legions of competent copy editors engaged in reviewing and refining the text so that what did make it to press was spelled correctly, grammatically sound, and readable.

No one ever had to explicitly tell us that nicely typeset stuff was generally the better stuff, we learned it subconsciously.

Some years ago, in the first blush of desktop publishing, someone handed me a beautifully typeset article. Shortly after starting to read it I realized that it was hopeless drivel. After a few repetitions of this experience I came to the realization that with Framemaker, Word, and similar systems prettily typeset output could now be produced with less effort than a draft manuscript in the bad old days. An important cultural cue was lost. The book could no longer be judged by its cover.

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