Line length is a major reason why easily available online transcriptions of Henry James’s major texts tend to overwhelm me. Click for a free full text, and you face a forbidding wall of words, as if it’s a curtain covering up some magical text lurking beneath it. Words crowd upon one another, and the your eyes slip and slide as you train your eyes on the same line all the way across the screen. We know that, grammatically, Jamesian sentences build up tension and dependent clauses until they threaten to collapse in on the sentence, but that’s no reason why the glyphs themselves should do so. To avoid this feeling of chaos and doom, I want to explore the line length appropriate for James full texts.
During this extremely early stage of dreaming up a model for digital scholarly editions of Henry James’s fiction, I’ve had the most pleasure thinking about fonts. Some of the excitement activates roughly the same neurons as when I browse pearl strands online: the sheer decorativeness of typefaces makes gazing on their forms, emptied of content, rewarding enough. Still, the very allure of particular fonts depends on their historical weight as past uses of the font for particular texts in particular contexts subtly shape your expectations of the words embodied by that font. A typeface is crucial for the transmission of meaning, not a superfluous decoration independent of it.
A few mornings ago, I received a heart-stopping email from a concerned typesetting editor in charge of the upcoming edited collection, Henry James Today (edited by John Rowe), for which I’ve contributed my essay “Toward a Digital Henry James.”