‘The stroke’: a review

the stroke

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. 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. 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. 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.