The A to Z of the continuing lure of letters

The Alphabet Abecedarium: some notes on letters by Richard Firmage (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
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The Independent Culture

On the face of it, this is another instance of that pleasing trend among publishers to shun heftiness in favour of the higher whimsy - porcelain, the calendar, giraffes, longitude, storms, and now the alphabet. Richard Firmage's book was, however, first published in America seven years ago. Perhaps, by dint of embracing a limitless subject in 300 pages, it began the fashion.

In taking the alphabet letter by letter, Firmage not only makes one marvel afresh that these symbols can be arranged to form, say, a plumber's invoice or the King James Bible. Illustrated with woodcuts on every page, this is as much a visual study as a philosophical or historical one. Firmage tentatively notes many physical inspirations for the shape of letters, so much so that one mystic credits "D" with the origins of all physical existence. Indeed, the Egyptian hieroglyph for this sound was a man's hand.

For his sources, Firmage not only favours the far reaches of Robert Graves's study of myth, The White Goddess, but has recourse to that solid historian of printing, SH Steinberg. From Steinberg he gathers that "only very rarely are major alphabet changes sudden". However, the conversion of German printing from black-letter to Roman type definitely was.

As Steinberg recounts, this change was imposed by the German government. Originally, the Nazis had extolled black-letter type as the natural expression of the Aryan soul. However - either because as their plans evolved they wanted a more universal type for propaganda purposes, or because Hitler actually believed the notion - on 3 January 1941 it was decreed that "the so-called Gothic type" had been invented by the Jews. Roman type would henceforth be the "normal script" of the Germans. According to Steinberg, this was, "despite its nonsensical argumentation, the one good thing Hitler did for German civilisation".

Curiously absent is another Steinberg - cartoonist Saul, whose work is the apotheosis of image and meaning, of discerning character within the shapes of letters and numbers. A kindred spirit is Geofroy Tory, whose 16th-century book Champ Fleur has been called "the most useless and most curious work on lettering in existence" and "an important factor in the more widespread use of the Roman letter and greater respect for design". Firmage draws so heavily on it that one longs for a new edition.

It is in the very nature of his subject that Firmage cannot pursue a logical path or reach a conclusion beyond Nabokov's own childhood amazement at lettering, "as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky". Firmage's prose is not a patch on that and, in making an allusion, he finds it necessary to label the likes of "the philosopher Leibniz" and "the poet Rimbaud" lest, no doubt, we muddle them with a baker or motorcycle rider. He often uses the phrase "reports that", which suggests an urgent telephone call rather than a quotation.

Yet his book forms a repository of the devastation that words can wreak - and also gives hope for the offbeat human spirit, even though we live in a digital age. Now, unlike the geometrical formation of letters, "the pixel-by-pixel composition of some computer alphabets, though often more complex, has a completely different intent: adaptation rather than creation."

If anything was ever as perverted as the Nazi inversion of the gamma symbol of joy into a swastika, it was the Initial Teaching Alphabet. When did it fade away? Research into its exacerbation of dyslexia would be rewarding.

Good lettering is ignored at one's peril, as these recent examples show. Staff at the Parisa chain of wine bars despaired at the marketing department's funky menus, the cause of many complaints as they were hard to read in low light, dishing out instead a less cool, but more effective, roneoed sheet intended for take-away customers. And has there ever been such a look of scorn as the one Phoebe gives Chandler in that episode of Friends when he gives her bookends formed from a garishly-scrolled A and Z?