• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Kelly’s Type Book Canon

For those who are typophiles, bibliophiles, typo-bibliophiles or just interested in many of the important books about the typographic canon and overall history of type, the eminent curator, author, historian and printer Jerry Kelly has organized an exhibition and authored a catalog, 100 Books Famous in Typography. It may not be the sexiest title (like Hot Type Books Go Wild) but will go down in history as the preeminent scholarly work. A must-have. Drawing on his extensive knowledge and impeccable research talent, Kelly, aided by a hand-picked committee of 10 consultants (including me), assembled an annotated top 100 that covers Western typographic achievement.


This Grolier Club exhibit (May 22–July 31) was inspired by the Grolier's 1902 One Hundred Books Famous in English Literature, which spawned other "One Hundred Books Famous" in, among them, children's literature, science, medicine and fine printing. Obviously, it was about time for attention to books on the essential organ of books—typography.


I asked Kelly to encapsulate the exhibition to whet your appetites. I urge everyone reading this to plan a beeline for the Grolier Club, take part in the related events and savor the catalog.


The show is in the Grolier Club's Ground Floor Gallery at 47 E. 60th St., New York City; it is open 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.


By way of introduction, please explain the criteria for selection into this pantheon.

In brief [as stated in the Introduction], criteria for inclusion include:

  • Publications which had a major influence on the art of type design (Aldine Virgil, romain du roi engravings, Baskerville Virgil, Kelmscott Press Golden Legend, etc.).

  • Notable monuments in the history of typographic practice (Gutenberg’s Bible, Fournier’s Manuel Typographique, Tschichold’s Die neue Typographie, Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, etc.).

  • Important and influential studies relating to the history of typography (Legros & Grant’s Typographical Printing Surfaces, Updike’s Printing Types, Carter’s A View of Early Typography, etc.).

  • Important journals on typography (The Monotype Recorder, The Fleuron, Matrix)

  • Seminal type specimen books (Lamesle type specimen, Caslon type specimen, Zapf’s Manuale Typographicum, etc.).

  • Milestones of changes in typographic practice (printing from moveable type: the Gutenberg Bible; multi-color printing types: the Fust & Schöffer Psalter and Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, etc.; phototype: Lumitype; digital type: Adobe’s Postscript; etc.).

  • Only books printed in Europe and America, using typography mainly in the Latin alphabet, but also occasionally Greek typefaces and other alphabets. A couple of books, such as Bodoni’s Oratio Dominica, show numerous other alphabets, some quite exotic (the Oratio Dominica is set in 155 languages, including Syrian, Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets).


What category of books were not considered for inclusion?

  • Books whose focus is on lettering or calligraphy instead of type. Therefore, Arrighi’s 1522 calligraphy manual L’Operina, Dürer’s Just Shaping of Letters, the entirely handlettered Pine Horace, and Hermann Zapf’s writing book Pen & Graver, etc., were not considered for inclusion since they are mainly examples of calligraphy and lettering, not type (typography).

  • Monuments of printing which are not primarily indicative of typographic practice or typographic milestones. Therefore, the Aldine Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Caxton Dictes & Sayings, the Ashendene Dante, etc., while superlative examples of the printer’s art, are not included since they did not have a major effect on type design or typography.

  • Journals where the main focus is almost exclusively books, not typography. Therefore, the Book Collector’s Packet, The Colophon, Parenthesis (the journal of the Fine Press Book Association), etc., are not included.

  • Asian and other non-European alphabets, with a few exceptions such as a book about the first cast moveable type, produced in Korea, and some typographic compilations in many languages, such as Bodoni’s Manuale and the Vatican type specimen, which contain examples of Chinese, Tibetan, Syriac and other alphabets, in addition to roman letters.

Euclid/Elementa Geometriae. Venice,1482. Folio.


Do you, in fact, view it as a pantheon or canon—or rather this is one opinion, like Harold Bloom's arguable The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages?

I feel any selection such as this is more along the lines of Harold Bloom's great books list. No one—even if they consult with the foremost experts, as we did here—can claim to be definitive in their selection. There is always going to be subjectivity in the choices. That being said, previous Grolier Hundreds have become "the canon" in their various fields. I think we need some point of reference, and in the past a Grolier Hundred has been considered as good as any.


Claude Lamesle Epreuves Generales des Caracteres. Paris, 1742. octavo.
From Claude Lamesle Epreuves Generales des Caracteres. Paris, 1742. octavo.

What were the runners up?

That would be a very long answer! Each consultant had suggested entries, and a couple were incorporated into the final list. On the other hand, a few items were deleted to make room for these suggestions. Two that were in the selection at one point but did not make the final cut are Walter Tracy's Letters of Credit and Nicolas Barker's book on the Greek types of Aldus Manutius. Among books suggested by advisors which did not make the final cut are The Crystal Goblet by Beatrice Warde, Detail in Typography by Jost Hochuli, and Bodoni's 1788 type specimen (despite the fact that two other Bodoni books, including his 1818 type specimen, are on the list). There were several others.





You spoke already about the categories of included books and periodicals. Would you explain the process for selection?

I made a list of around 100 books based on the criteria quoted above. Then I sent that list to each of the 10 advisors, asking for suggested additions and deletions. If any book appeared on two lists, it was added or deleted. There were only a couple in each category (additions and deletions).


There are some very obvious selections and some less-obvious ones. What were the latter, and why?

There are several less-obvious selections, as you say. For example:

  • Peter Karow's Digital Formats for Typefaces is a technical manual, but it is included to represent digital type technology, which is the basis for virtually all type set today.

  • Geoffrey Dowding's Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type is not a tremendously well-known book, but it has a significant influence on many of the best typographers.

  • Simon de Colines' contribution to the seminal French old style typefaces is not as noted as Garamond's or Granjon's, but he was one of the original leaders in the movement, and therefore is represented by an early volume printed in one of his roman typefaces.

  • The last entry, Mark Argetsinger's Grammar of Typography, was published just last year, so it would not be an obvious choice to many people. But it is a fantastic book!

I'm fixated on what did not make the cut. What did you regret not including?

Again, I regret Nicolas Barker's book on Aldus Manutius' Greek type was not included. Barker uncovered some very interesting information on these seminal fonts. I also believe Hermann Zapf's influence on typography is huge, so I would have liked more than one entry for him. Hermann Zapf and His Design Philosophy, a collection of his essays profusely illustrated with examples of his work, would have made a nice addition. But we tried to limit the selections to one book per person, breaking that rule only in a very few instances (Aldus, Bodoni, and a couple of others).


A.M. Cassandre (1901–1968), Bifur. Paris, Deberny & Peignot, 1928. Folio.
Jan Tschichold (1902–1974), Designing Books. New York Wittenborn (n.d.). Folio.
John and Rosalind Randle (editors), Matrix. Andoversford, Gloucestershire: The Whittington Press, 1988. Quarto.

Is there a takeaway you want the audience to take away?

I hope the exhibition and catalogue will help people see what a diverse, vibrant and significant art typography is. These expressions of the beauty of letterforms, in their creation and use, display what a rich field typography is, worthy of being considered one of the greatest accomplishments and finest arts of mankind.

RECENT POSTS: