Fonts & Encodings by Yannis Haralambous: water in the desert

by Rick Jelliffe

I cannot think of a technical book that I have enjoyed more in the last decade than Yannis Haralambous' new Fonts & Encodings from O'Reilly. It plonked on my desk this week, with a resounding bang: it has over 1,000 pages with many graphics.

The book really should be called "Fonts and their encoding" as it is not really about character sets at all, though Unicode appears throughout. It surveys the area of fonts, covering multiple platforms and systems, always wryly and clearly. Here is what I like in particular:

  • Reading this book you get the idea that you are encountering a world that would otherwise be almost closed to you: not just technical information but background and gossip. It is almost at the level of Ken Lunde's CJKV Information Processing (perhaps the best technical book ever written for taking an inchoate mass of facts and constructing a clear and systematic survey), which is probably the highest praise I could give.

  • Haralambous' style is delightful: Scott Horne's translation does not attempt to lose the French accent (this is a translation of the original 2004 French Edition) but this is nothing but positive for the text. The result is a book that seems to have been written by a human not a droid. He seems to be a character like BIS' Martin Bryan, who cannot talk for long without saying something really interesting.

  • Haralambous comes from a background of high-quality typesetting. One of the most tedious aspects of 2007 for me has been the interaction with people who know absolutely nothing about typesetting, even low quality typesetting, but who feel competent to be dogmatic on ODF and Open XML. His even-handedness and expertise are really admirable.

  • Haralambous is one of the instigators of the Omega project, which is a grafting of TeX, Unicode and OpenFont (= TrueType) fonts. As such he pays decent attention to fonts from all backgrounds: the last 400 pages of the book are appendixes on bitmap fonts, TeX fonts, PostScript fonts, TrueType fonts, MetaFont, and even a little section on Bezier curves. I see the book as really timely for the next generation of platform-independent Open Source publishing applications.

  • It is interesting to see how integrated XML is to the whole book. Notably, the lengthy sections on TrueType use Just van Rossum's TTX XML-ization. The author really seems to get XML.

  • Apart from a great 70 page section on the History of Latin Typefaces, the book includes some good material on Arabic/Indic typesetting that I had not seen before. The treatment of CJK (Chinese/Japanese/Korean) issues I didn't care for much: but it is a big area, and I think it would be great if a new edition of Lunde's book could be prepared: CJK processing does not involve fiddling with glyphs much, so I can understand why there would not be much treatment of it here.

I haven't read the sections on typographic programs yet: my license to FontLab is somewhere in storage but I haven't used it for quite a while: just skimming the FontLab material here and it seems the book provides a lot of the information I didn't have workable access to a decade ago. Cool!

The great thing about writing (and, hopefully, reading) a big fat survey book is that the gaps in the status quo become very evident. A decade ago, when I wrote my XML & SGML Cookbook, it became apparent that DTDs and grammars were not capable of representing many of the constraints and abstractions that document description languages needed: out of that idea eventually popped Schematron. Haralambous only briefly mentions it in this book, but his website has some papers where he describes his idea for typesetting based on textemes which comes out of his awareness of the gaps. It will be interesting to see what direction he takes there.

The only quibble I have about the book is that I would have liked to have seen more treatment of cutting edge technologies such as SIL's work. However, the book's strength is that it brings a modern European (in particular, a West continental European) perspective and I can understand that the line had to be drawn somewhere.

It is somewhat surprising to me to find a technical book where I think it would be more productive to have the book in my library rather than try to locate the information on the WWW. The local technical bookstores nowadays have computer sections that are full of product manuals and certification courses: finding a book that even has a sense of history and enjoyment of the subject matter is water in the desert.

I don't know if this is an experiment by OReilly, to translate a book from their non-English operations, but it is really successful.


Michael Day
2007-10-02 19:06:21
Sounds like a great book, and Yannis has written a wide range of interesting papers on typesetting, although the reader will need to be fluent in English, French and Greek to get the most out of them :)

By the way Rick, will you be attending XML 2007?

Rick Jelliffe
2007-10-02 21:22:44
Michael: Yep, it is great to have someone to bridge the gap; English is good, but it is not at all universal.

(I have no plans to go to XML 2007. I may go to the Kyoto SC34 meeting to attend to some DSDL/Schematron matters.)