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‘The stroke’: a review

Reviews of The stroke have begun to appear. Gerrit Noordzij’s writings present a particular challenge to their readers. ‘Do not believe what you read’, the author seems to say. ‘What I am saying is what seems to me to be true; but you need to sort it out for yourself, with the help of my explorations, if they interest you.’ He asks for a thinking-along with him. Not so many reviewers want to put in the work of engagement. Erik Spiekermann’s review appears, in its original German, in the journal Text (no. 11, 2006), edited at the Institut für Textkritik, and published in Frankfurt a.M. by Stroemfeld Verlag. For permission to publish this translation, thanks to the editors and publishers of Text, and Erik Spiekermann.

When Gerrit Noordzij writes about writing, the subject matter is visible language, and his language is so precisely descriptive and well considered that no translation is going to make understanding easier. So it’s strange to review in German the English translation of a Dutch text. Quite a few expressions in Noordzij’s mother tongue are nearer to German idiom than to English. Many people envy us just for the word ‘Schrift’, because it describes everything that can displayed in written form. We have ‘Handschrift’ (written characters) and ‘Satzschrift’ (typographic characters). Written signs are called ‘Staben’ (characters) in the context of a book, and the span of meaning runs from ‘Druckschrift’ (printing type) and ‘Leuchtschrift’ (neon letters) through ‘Anschrift’ (the address where someone lives) to ‘Klageschrift’ (the charge made in a court of law). Anglo-Saxons have to decide between ‘writing’ for writing by hand and ‘type’ for manufactured characters, while ‘typing’ means writing with a keyboard.

The original title of this book is De streek: theorie van het schrift, which in English has to be translated as ‘writing’. The Dutch ‘streek’ is our ‘Strich’, in the sense of ‘Streich’; the movement of a writing instrument, resulting in a visible stroke. Noordzij’s concern is writing, and he seeks to show that reading and writing go together, and that reading is not – as our young people are taught – the deciphering of separate characters.

Gerrit Noordzij, born in 1931 in Rotterdam, is a typographer, calligrapher, lettercutter, scientist, historian, and type designer. Above all, he is a teacher. Many of his students at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague have become internationally known graphic and type designers, exerting considerable influence internationally, both practically and through their theoretical contributions. Noordzij’s wife is German and his two sons, Christoph and Peter Matthias, grew up bilingual. A conversation with their father in German is not only possible but ocasionally even demanding, as he can quote Goethe and Heine by heart and extensively – if he hasn’t already interjected lengthy texts in Latin, on the assumption that everyone has a command of that language too. He speaks a kind of old-fashioned, correct and rather elaborate German that one hears from those older Dutch people who have overcome their prejudices against the language of their overmighty neighbours, to show us that Dutch is really the purest form of German.

Petr and Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum, Lucas de Groot, Albert Jan Pool, Peter Verheul, Frank Blokland, and his two sons as well, studied with Noordzij in the 1970s and 1980s. Since his retirement in 1990 they have come to the fore as teachers and taken up his theories. All are active as type and letter designers and have established the reputation of the Royal Academy as the most successful college for type design.

More than twenty years ago, when I asked Noordzij to write for my ‘typographic novel’ (Rhyme & reason) the sentence ‘Am Anfang war das A’ (At the beginning was an A), I received at first a rebuff, because of course in the Bible it reads ‘Im Anfang’ (In the beginning), and with this my rather tiresome old chestnut would be shattered. Then he wrote ‘Dear Erik, what are you thinking of, to let me claim, at the beginning would be an A’ (‘Lieber Erik, was fällt Dir ein, mich behaupten zu lassen, am Anfang wäre das A’), and I reproduced the sentence like that.

This small book of just 86 pages shows seventeen quotations from the Bible written by hand, as examples of styles of writing with different contrasts and constructions. In their content they bear no connection to the text, but the sentence from John 1:1 is more than just one of the exercises in writing: ‘In principio erat verbum’. A large part of the text deals just with the word, and above all with the discovery of the word, which Noordzij takes to be one of the foundations of Western culture. He ascribes this discovery to Irish monks of the seventh century, and places the start of the modern age there. I do not know if this theory is correct, but Noordzij’s remarks are worth reading, because they depict as prejudice much of what I had accepted as fact. He defines prejudice as views that may not be questioned.

A nice example of Noordzij’s way of dealing with academic ‘facts’ is his explanation of the origin of the ‘romain du roi’: the type that, around 1700, a scientific committee had cut in the name of the French king. For Noordzij, all letters come from writing, even – especially – including printing type, and he does not want to accept that this project can be used as a proof of the pure construction of a type. The drawings for the ‘romain du roi’ do in fact show a grid of squares, on which the characters stand and appear to take their form. The documents of the committee show, according to Noordzij, that the drawings of the characters were finished by one Nicholas Jarry, who around 1650 worked as a calligrapher for the Court. They show the handwriting of the calligrapher and are not subjected to a grid; this rather serves merely as a help for the transmission of the dimensions. For the historian of type, however, this grid was always a design grid, and the ‘romain du roi’ was consequently a turning point in the history of type. Type was then at last free of its origins in handwriting. This idea fits splendidly into a Cartesian conception of the world; but for Noordzij it is merely one of those falsifications that are often invented by scientists, whose theory threatens to be overtaken by new facts.

To prove his own theory, Noordzij is himself not afraid to reach for scientific means: his mathematical formulae and diagrams have the capacity to prove his concepts of expansion and translation. These two concepts serve him in explaining letterforms, which develop entirely from the stroke. What he says about the dependence of the space between the signs and their interior spaces is relevant not only to the type designer, but ought to be be known by any graphic designer. This knowledge would lead to lines and columns more legible than those we often have to put up with.

As a type designer I know that I do not only design the black strokes, but also the white spaces that these strokes define. Rhythm and contrast are more important for legibility than an imaginary form of the characters. Children who are just learning to read know that the teacher deceives them when he passes off a ‘d’, a ‘b’, a ‘q’ and a ‘p’ as different signs. It’s not their form that differentiates them, because a form doesn’t change when one turns it through 90 or 180 degrees. These signs get their meaning in the word, in the sequence of black and white. This admission would have far-reaching consequences for the teaching of reading, for which dyslexia is a fashionable idea and has to serve as a general explanation for poor understanding.

Noordzij’s writing on the meaning of the form that derives from handwriting makes sense, even though it sometimes needs some effort to follow his thought. This may be because it contradicts everything that we learned as children at school and as designers at college. Designers, historians and theoreticians of type have always had difficulties with Noordzij’s theses. This is not just a matter of their complexity, but also of the lack of compromise and occasionally rather coarse manner with which he expresses them. The tone of voice often derives from a certain kind of humour that does not reach everyone – and not at all in a translation. I recall that Noordzij once wanted to prove that the concept of ‘serif’ came from the Dutch word ‘schrijven’ [to write], so to speak, through being worn down or through misuse. Even now I do not know if he really meant that or whether it was just an attempt to see how far he could push it. He, who encourages distrust for all established rules, has to take care that his theories too are not believed straight away.

Noordzij escapes all academic attempts to classify the basic categories of type, because, according to his own model, everything can be ordered and explained through their construction: that is, the manner in which they are written. This may work for text typefaces, although it takes a bit of getting used to. It does not do for the many thousand constructed types, indispensable for biscuit packages, newspaper mastheads, posters, book covers, and above all screens. But equally in vain is any attempt to classify this multiplicity with historical or descriptive categories. Perhaps we simply do not need any classification of types that anyway are subject to continually changing fashion. And then Noordzij would again be right in just ignoring them.

Anyone who is interested in visible language and in why our letters and our types look as they do should study these 86 pages. A single reading is not enough, because The stroke has consequences that extend far beyond what one finds in most handbooks written for practical application.

translation: RK