A good metaphor

A Reading Note

Despite the seemingly fortuitous, purely English-language nature of the connection between type “faces” and human ones it is hard to resist some attempt to follow the implied analogy. It might be that a typeface is made up of elements (its letters or characters) which are like the parts of a human visage: ears, eyes, nose, mouth and perhaps finer sub-divisions. The parts have their own expected formal properties: we know what a mouth is, and—taking an enormous leap into the particular—we know what her mouth is like. And, so the analogy would go, we know what a “g” is like and—again jumping to the particular—we know what a Baskerville “g” is like. This analogy could be pushed a little further. The parts, though formally different, should fit together: the “g” should look as though it belongs with every other character; her mouth sorts with every element of her face, becoming part of a whole that is unique (thus the photograph on her passport, or in her lover’s wallet). At this point, one introduces ideas of value and perhaps beauty. Do some mouths fit their faces better than others?…At this level of direct comparison the analogy soon becomes absurd.…Anthropomorphism has its uses and its pleasures, but has severe limits too: letters are made by human beings, but are not human outgrowths.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 116

No analogy holds when followed to the ends of the earth; it’s a tool whose power lies in suggestion—a fleeting kiss instead of a lifelong partnership.

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