Rivers of Type

One thing the Kindle iPhone app gets wrong: it justified the type, creating huge gaps in the flow of the text. Do you know any type nerds that would read this?


With the spacing between words highlighted.


And with the text removed to just see the inconsistent spacing.


Computer justified type only looks good to people who like straight edges on their blocks but don’t bother to read the text inside them. Easy fix, Amazon: leave the text ragged-right, or at least give us some better typography preferences.


Looks like the justification is a publisher preference. Glenn Fleishman at TidBITS praises the left justification, but then on the Slog comments he verified that it is an individual preference.


Kragen in comments asks:

How would you justify this type by hand?

My full answer is below, but here is the same page that I’ve handled:



Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: March 4, 2009 11:29 AM
What awful hyphenation rules too! I gagged at "brillianti-ned" and "han-gabouts". Kindle seems to be quite the leap backwards for typography and reading.
Check out Stanza - it has justification options and hyphenation dictionaries for multiple languages.
Do you feel the same way about TeX-justified type? How would you justify this type by hand (other than, obviously, hyphenating it correctly)?

Kragen: I haven't set enough TeX type to give a knowledgeable opinion, but given that Tex (and LaTeX) are extremely intelligent typesetting languages, I would think it wouldn't be an issue. Far be it for a mere mortal like myself to question Donald Knuth.

As for setting this type by hand: I would probably leave it ragged right, since the short line length and large type size leads to rivers. If I had to set it justified, I would argue for a typeface that scales better (Georgia, despite its charms and use here on this page, is not a great text-setting typeface). However, given the constraints of typesize, leading, typeface choice, and default letterspacing, I've created a little graphic of how I would do it and attached it as an update to the post above.

Plain TeX with plausible margins (2 inches in cmr10, half-em indent) refuses to set this at default tolerance, but with a slightly elevated tolerance of 3000 it finds this optimum:
They are waiting nervously for
the ticket holders to clear the
turnstiles, the last loose cluster
of fans, the stragglers and loi-
terers. They watch the late-
arriving taxis from downtown
and the brilliantined men step-
ping dapper to the windows,
policy bankers and supper club
swells and Broadway hotshots,
high aura'd, picking lint off their
mohair sleeves. They stand at
the curb and watch without seem-
ing to look, wearing the sourish
air of corner hangabouts. All
the hubbub has died down, the
pregame babble and swirl, ven-
dors working the jammed side
walks . . . .
We'd need a fair bakeoff with identical fonts to actually compare this to Martin's manual effort, but obviously they're both very close and very good. In a real-world test, TeX's advantage grows with the document length (it can backtrack several pages to get out of a tight spot) so this one-page sample puts it under an unrealistic handicap. This well-documented open-source algorithm was only finalized in 1982, of course, so it's silly to ask Amazon to do equally well today.
Ragged right is the way we write and it is used in print often to indicate commentary. Fully justified type serves the purpose of the manufacturer by making type fit within material specifications. A good typographer can usually do a decent job with tight column constraints. Unfortunately the digital world tends to forget that it doesn't have to conform to the limitations of the morning edition.
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