Thursday, October 6, 2011

Andromeda: Steve Jobs, Font, and How Writers See the World

When I heard the news of Steve Jobs's death yesterday, the first thing I thought about was fonts. The second was about how to be a better writer.

On this blog, in our manuscripts, in the do-it-yourself text we see all around us, we all expect to see Arial and Georgia and Verdana and much more. If not for him, we wouldn't have those typefaces at our fingertips, and most of us wouldn't even recognize their names.

The much-told story, condensed from an old article at slate.com, goes like this:

In 1972, Jobs enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Ore.; after a semester, seeing little value in college, he dropped out. But Jobs hung around Portland—he crashed in friends' dorm rooms, recycled Coke bottles to buy food, and sat in on several courses that he found interesting. One of these was a calligraphy class; it was there that Jobs first realized the simple, underappreciated beauty of the written language on a page. Calligraphy, he recalled in a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, was "beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating." ... The Mac was the first consumer machine to offer multiple fonts and the first to use "proportionally spaced" typefaces, meaning that unlike on a typewriter, some characters could be wider or narrower than others. ... As Jobs told the Stanford grads, "If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do."

That story proves how much one person can change the look and feel and daily workings of the entire world. But it always strikes me as a lesson, also, for every person interested in self-education (even after he dropped out, regardless of credit counts or future resume, Jobs still hung around campus, eager to learn). And it always strikes me as a great story for writers.

Jobs sat in on that class and had an epiphany: here is something I appreciate; here is something I can use to make the world a more beautiful, functional, and interesting place. On the prowl for stories, real and fictional, we read the newspaper, we overhear conversations, we consider our own relationships, we see a stranger passing on the street and think: there is a character, there is a plot, there is a human condition to be explored.

We aim to be, as Henry James exhorted and as Steve Jobs practiced, someone upon whom "nothing is lost."

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