Imitation and innovation

Book history is a sequence of oscillating J-curves, where new developments start as exercises in imitation but end up introducing innovative forms, while themselves becoming the imitative model for new types.

The first printed books look like manuscripts. Some manuscripts from the 17th century look like printed books, with title pages handwritten with mock fonts and adopting the layout of contemporary books. Cross-imitation also worked.

We imitate today more than we like to admit. The wax tablets of the ancient world provided the distant inspiration for the tablet you see charging on your desk. We didn’t even bother finding another word for the digital pen, stylus is good enough. The ancient Romans would smile. You might write a book in MS Word using your favourite font (from the French fondre, to melt), but you’re still handing a manuscript to the editor, who might find typos before sending the text to the typography – an obsolete word for a printing press in English, but surviving in other languages. Finally, the press is not all ink pressed unto paper.

You get the idea.

This is not to suggest that words is all we imitate. Our technology, innovative as it usually is, often starts with a modest gesture of imitation. And it doesn’t stop there.

Just one example.

Take fonts. The three most common typefaces in use today are variations of Helvetica, Baskerville and Times. They’re based on fonts used by early printers like Nicolas Jenson and Aldus Manutius, both uber-innovators in the field. Jenson invented the Roman typeface, mother and father of all fonts. The Roman in Times New Roman. Manutius adapted a famous Italian humanist’s slanted handwriting (Niccolò de’ Niccoli’s) to print and called the resulting font ‘Italic’. If you think Facebook is innovative, just remember we can read posts and stories thanks to Jenson and Manutius’ innovations.

Both Jenson and Niccoli were imitators. Jenson adapted the style he found on Roman ancient inscriptions. Niccoli, like the majority of Italian humanists, wanted to emulate a style of writing known to us as ‘Caroline minuscule’ found in 9th- and 10th-century manuscripts he thought had been written by the ancients. They were wrong, but who cares? The magnitude of their innovative practice- in writing and in print – cannot be overstated. Today they’re inescapable.

Two-thirds of a J-curve are given to imitation. That’s where we start. The rest is whatever we want it to be, and it might just be something valuable, innovative and lasting.

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