A Font A Day Keeps My Muse Away

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God...

>JOHN 1:1

WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows, which came already installed in the computer I bought last month, may not be the best computer program in history, but it undoubtedly sets the record for comprehensiveness. It comes with four manuals totaling well over 1,300 pages, but that's just the start of the literary output devoted to it, which includes more than a dozen books and a magazine. That doesn't even count all the verbiage it generates internally in its frantic attempts to explain itself to the user. WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows treats you like a nervous hostess who, at the slightest hint of indecision, pops up at your elbow with a tray of salted nuts. Or, rather, it presents a choice of nuts, chips, olives, crackers or celery sticks, followed by a series of questions designed to elicit your precise preference in cocktail snacks: cashews, peanuts or other? salted [Y/N]? quantity [1-9, handful, or bowl?]. To compose so much as a shopping list is to be invited to choose from dozens of fonts in a mind-boggling array of sizes, from a cornucopia of border designs and an array of terminal curlicues, darts, starbursts and fleurs-de-lis that would look presumptuous on the letterhead of an emperor.

I guess most people are flattered to have all this ingenuity lavished on their work, because WordPerfect in its various versions claims to be the best-selling word processor ""of all time'' (an honor I thought had been locked up by the pencil) with more than 16 million copies in use. Even I was briefly charmed by the possibility that my work might emerge from the printer as scintillatingly beautiful as a Lexus ad. But I found working with WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows a profoundly disillusioning experience. The very first time I used it, I clicked in the wrong box and my view of the document in progress suddenly expanded to take in two sequential pages, on which a day's work was reduced to infinitesimally obscure squiggles in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen. I couldn't believe my eyes. What use is a word-processing program on which you can't read the words?

But that is precisely the view that WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows secretly encourages: a view of words as graphical elements, decorations on a tableau of white space. WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows forces me to take an interest in things I never wanted to think about -- the choice between Times New Roman and Lucida Bold, for instance. My old word processor printed out in exactly one font, which was the typeface of the typewriter it was attached to. Any nuances I chose to convey I had to supply myself, through my choice of words and the skill with which I juggled as many as five different kinds of punctuation in a single sentence. I'm a writer; that's what I do. WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows offers dozens of quasi-geometric shapes into which text can be squeezed, stretched and contorted for dramatic effect. I would no more want to see my words treated this way than my child.

I realize, of course, that most of the features in WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows are not intended for someone like me, whose finished product is ordinary text. I realize that the world needs newsletters, bulletins, posters, annual reports and form letters as well as magazines and books. And I am an extremist on the subject of verbal versus graphic representation. I don't carry pictures of my kids. When someone asks what they look like, I answer that I'm a writer; I'll describe them.

But the point of view encouraged by WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows is also one that I see coming to dominate journalism. Graphic designers are in the ascendance, as anyone can see by comparing this magazine with a copy of Newsweek from, say, 35 years ago. Punctuated by small, dark pictures of men in suits, words marched up and down the page, shoulder to shoulder -- a gray army of facts conquering the white space of ignorance. Today's magazine is immeasurably more attractive, inviting and interesting to look at. But in the 15 years I have been here, the length in words of an average one-page article has decreased approximately 7 percent. I've heard what's happened to workers in industries whose output was cut 7 percent.

The way I look at it, I have written something over a million words as a journalist without knowing or caring what typeface they were in. I plan to write another million the same way, and after that, it'll all be white space to me.

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