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Book Review: Fonts & Encodings by Yannis Haralambous, translated by P. Scott Horne

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Have you ever wondered about the different fonts, and typography that are used by the various operating systems, application software, or even in use on the web? For most people, fonts are just something that chosen, and used without much thought beyond the basic "this looks good." There are a lot of different fonts that are out there, and available for use in a wide variety of situations.

According to Fonts & Encodings, the era of ASCII characters is long gone, and industry leaders such as Apple, HP, IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle have adopted the Unicode Worldwide Character Standard. But this only solves part of the problem, as a multitude of font standards and tools remain between the numeric character codes and their presentation. Fonts & Encodings attempts to show how those pieces fit together.

Fonts & Encodings is a hefty 1016 pages that divide out into fourteen chapters and seven appendixes, which further break out into four parts. I will segment my review into the four parts.

Part I (chapters 1-5) starts with the topic of encodings, and in particular, Unicode. First, we journey to the time before Unicode, and see the processes that led up to development of Unicode. Then, Unicode is introduced, as well as the underlying concepts upon which it is based. We begin to get more technical as we get into the character properties of Unicode. Here we get a glimpse of the internal workings of the encoding. Then we are shown the process of normalization, the use of bidirectionality; the process of reading right-to-left or left-to-right, and the use of East Asian Scripts. Finally, we finish up with solving how to produce a text encoded in Unicode. This is done in three different ways; by selecting from a table, through the use of a virtual keyboard, and by converting data that exists in other encodings.

Part II (chapters 6-8) moves to the topic of fonts. This concerns the installation and management of fonts under three different systems; Window, Macintosh, and X Window (UNIX). While not chapters to thrill, these may prove useful to those who have problems with system crashes, unexplainable slow downs, poor quality of output, corrupted documents or other mishaps. Since this is also about management, it will work well for those who have thousands of fonts, and are in need of organization.

Part III (chapters 9-10) are more technical and specific in that they deal with the use of fonts in two specific cases. The first is the TEX typesetting system and its successor Ω. This is a software system, and a programming language that is devoted to typesetting. The other case is with web pages. Here not only is the technical aspect discussed; things like submitting a font to a browser, and having it use it automatically, but the legal one of how to make a font available, without infringing on the font's copyright.

Part IV (Chapters 11-14, Appendix F) is devoted completely to fonts. This part begins with the history of printing, especially of Latin typographic characters. Next, is a description of three methods for classifying fonts; the first two finish off the history, and the third serves as a link between this chapter and the rest of the book.

Then, you learn about the tools that exist for creating (and modifying) fonts. The two that are explored are FontLab, and FontForge. This is covered over three chapters, as they have broken the process down into three steps; drawing glyphs, optimizing, and supplementing.

You are then introduced to the development of OpenType properties. Supported by Adobe and Microsoft, many foundries are moving their arsenals of PostScript, or TrueType fonts, into OpenType fonts. There is discussion as well on the competitor of OpenType fonts; AAT Fonts. Finally, there is a discussion on METAFONT and its derivatives; this is actually contained in appendix F, but listed as part of this section. METAFONT is a programming language dedicated to font creation, and was created by the developer of TEX

Fonts & Encodings is a very interesting book, in that it contains a lot of information that is not easily found anywhere else. It deals with fonts from a historical aspect, such as with regard to typesetting, but also gets into the algorithms, and software that can create fonts. It contains a lot of good examples, as well as a lot of information on working with fonts. It has a good tutorial on Unicode, and its history as well. It is meant to be a bridge between old traditions, and new technologies, and I think that it fares on that point very well. If you have an interest in fonts, and how they work; perhaps to begin to create them, then Fonts & Encodings is a good framework in which to begin.

Chapter Listing
Before Unicode
Characters, glyphs, bytes: An introduction to Unicode
Properties of Unicode characters
Normalization, bidirectionality, and East Asian characters
Using unicode

Font management on the Macintosh
Font management under Windows
Font management under X Windows
Fonts in TEX, their installation and use
Fonts and web pages
History and Classification of Latin Typefaces
Editing and Creating Fonts
Optimizing a rasterization
Enriching Fonts: Advanced Typography
Appendix A. Bitmap Font Formats
Appendix B. TEX Font Formats
Appendix C. Postscript Font Formats
Appendix D. The Truetype, OpenType, and AAT Font Formats
Appendix E. TrueType Instructions
Appendix F. METAFONT and its Derivatives
Appendix G. Bezier Curves

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.