An independent archive of typography.

Moby Dick, the Arion Press edition

A masterpiece of American book design and literature, as reprinted for a general audience by University of California Press

Contributed by Nick Sherman on Feb 4th, 2011. Artwork published in .

Between 1978 and 1979 Andrew Hoyem undertook the ambitious production of an edition of Moby Dick for his Arion Press. All text in the book was hand-set in metal type (one character at a time) and letterpress printed on custom hand-made paper. To accompany the text throughout, 100 stunning wood engravings were cut by renowned printmaker and illustrator Barry Moser. Due to its high level of craftsmanship, the edition was limited to 265 copies, and is considered a masterpiece of modern bookmaking — named by the Grolier Club as one of the “100 Most Beautiful Books of the 20th Century”.

In 1981, the University of California Press worked with Hoyem to offer an offset-printed trade edition of the book. These reduced scale reprints are now widely available in hardcover and paperback formats which maintain much of the beauty found in the original — including its typography.

The typeface used for the main body type — Goudy Modern — has a rustic texture which matches both the story and illustrations perfectly. It also seems fitting that a typeface by such a quintessential American type designer like Frederic Goudy was used to set one of the most quintessential American novels.

To complement the body type, a set of large capitals were designed specifically for the book’s initial caps and titling. The stately face, aptly named Leviathan (not to be confused with H&FJ’s face of the same name), was designed by Charles Bigelow & Kris Holmes, of later Lucida fame. As the name implies, Leviathan was intended for very large sizes, where its sharp details and exaggerated flaring can really shine.

The Leviathan caps work beautifully on the book’s title page.

Unfortunately Leviathan never made it to the dustjacket of the trade edition.

Considering the wide spectrum of writing styles that appear throughout Moby Dick, Hoyem’s typographic restraint is impressive. Using just one weight of one typeface, in only two sizes, he manages to compose most all of the story’s narration, technical documentation, asides, poetry, quotations, etc … not to mention administrative text like captions and folios. With a touch of Leviathan’s stylistic flair, the “just enough is more” typographic palette relies on smart typesetting to communicate the sometimes-complex hierarchy instead of a mess of weights and sizes.

The majority of the book’s text’s is set using just one weight of one typeface, in only two sizes.

The footnotes and inset illustrations could sometimes use a bit more breathing room, and I don’t understand the practice of leaving one or two lines of type above illustrations that might otherwise be pushed to the top of the column. But other than that, the book is laid out beautifully, with ample margins, a perfect measure (clocking in around 65–70 characters per line), and generally pleasing proportions overall.

A spread from the book, with one of Barry Moser’s boxwood engravings.

Those looking to use Goudy Modern for digital typesetting have a couple options. Though Goudy Modern MT and LTC Goudy Modern may appear quite similar at a glance, the LTC version retains a bit more of the quirkiness that might be felt when printing from the original metal type. It also provides more functionality, like upper- and lowercase numerals, stylistic alternate glyphs, additional language support, etc. Unfortunately, as far as I know, Leviathan was never produced as a digital font.

The 18pt Goudy Modern body type used in the original printing was cast by MacKenzie & Harris (the typefounding sibling to Arion press) on a their Thompson type caster and set by hand. Arion had enough type to set about 36 pages at a time, which would be printed, then redistributed and used again to compose the remaining pages. Bigelow & Holmes’ design for Leviathan was produced by Berthold as a film font for phototypesetting, which was then used to produce magnesium plates for printing. (Many thanks to Dave Johnston and the crew at M&H and Arion Press for the additional information.)

18 Comments on “Moby Dick, the Arion Press edition”

  1. Beautiful! Though I agree that the footnotes look a little cramped.

    Thank you for bringing these mouthwatering typographic delicacies to my attention.

    PS> A suggestion: add social media sharing buttons on your posts. I'll be tweeting this in any case, but a 'tweet this' button would've made my life easier ...

  2. Yotam says:
    Feb 4th, 2011 9:09 am

    It is worth mentioning that an extensive preview of the offset is available at Google Books.

  3. Thanks for the tip Yotam. I'll use the resource to illustrate a question about something I mentioned in the article: Does anyone have any insight about leaving an extra line or two above an illustration? It's done throughout the edition, so it's definitely a conscious decision. Obviously Andrew Hoyem knows a thing or two about book design, so maybe it's just something I'm ignorant of?

  4. Tiffany Wardle de Sousa says:
    Feb 4th, 2011 4:47 pm

    Nick, do you think it could be his way of allowing the reader to stay in the text without putting an image right in the middle? I could see how that would be a good rationale.

  5. Wonderful write-up, Nick.

    The stray line of text above the figure/illustration used to bother me. My personal preference is a minimum of two lines. But I think there is something to be said for not shifting the image to the top — when reading, the eye naturally travels to the top of the recto page. When it finds no text, it is distracted, albeit for the briefest of moments.

    Also think the title-page would benefit from omitting the portrait.

  6. Is this the start of a rehabilitation of the Goudy brand? Do I overstate it? I mean, I can swear that each time I've heard or read Goudy's name over the last 10 years or so, it was not in the most complimentary way.

  7. Helen Delano says:
    Feb 11th, 2011 9:23 am

    I am merely guessing with no real knowledge, but is the extra lines of type at the top a mechanical issue? Does the process of setting mechanical type require a couple of rows on either side to stabilize the illustration block? The lines of type may be held in with a more secure device than the illustrations?

  8. I think the line or lines at the top are there to contain the image and foreground the text. If the image was at the top the text might seem to be secondary (as in a caption) or equal (as in a picture book) to the image.

    A really great article on a beautiful subject.

  9. I agree with Tiffany and John; it seems to be a way of keeping the narrative the focus without breaking the story completely off at the top of each page. I'm not used to the practice, but I do rather like it the more I look at it.

    BTW, I just found this site and I'm wondering the font and setting for the posts. I'm not really savvy enough to go looking through the code to find it...

  10. Hi James! Check the colophon for the typefaces used on this site.

  11. Nick,

    Excellent article. I don't know much about fonts, but your English composition and use of grammar and vocabulary exceeds quality of most educated people. Congrats to a smart kid with a good education.

  12. Thanks for showing this to us. The book is so well designed it is practically a lesson in itself in how to use subtle changes of size, spacing and alignment to indicate different roles for the text.

    I too was initially confused by the "stray" lines above the illustration, but John makes an excellent point. The eye travels to the top of the recto page, and the reader certainly knows to skip over the illustration to continue the text. I can't imagine getting such a device past modern publishers, but it's interesting to think about and maybe use in another context.

    My favorite element here is the chapter breaks. Such a crisp blend of simplicity and clarity.

  13. Nick, captivating write-up of what appears to be a gorgeous document. It sounds ridiculous, but despite being captivated by Moby Dick, I couldn't get more than a third of the way through. It might have been because it's too special a text to be rendered in any old paperback.

    In any case, I decided this was the perfect excuse to get back on track. I just bought the reduced-size recent edition (hardback, natch). If I spray the pages with a light mist of watered-down tea and read it from up close I might be able to fake the impression of experiencing the original.

    Thanks for the tip-off! ;)

  14. I've created a logo using Goudy Modern and I'm having trouble finding a sans-serif font to complement it. Any suggestions?

  15. My suggestions for a complementary face would depend a lot on the context of how and where it was going to be used. Does it absolutely need to be a sans-serif? Are you looking to set long blocks of text with it or just to set a tagline under the logo? What's it a logo for?

  16. Bejoy says:
    Oct 2nd, 2016 6:03 pm

    I am late in offering this note. The article is well written and nice, particularly for the inclusion of the illustrations. However, there is no mention of the 1981 Deluxe edition of this book from the University of California Press. Printed on heavy cream color paper and cloth bound in a sturdy slipcase, this edition was limited to 750 copies. The text was reproduced photographically from the original by arrangement with the Arion Press. The Deluxe edition dimensions are 13.5 by 9 inches, compared to the original Arion press’s 15 by 10 inches (a 10% reduction in linear dimensions). The slight reduction allows one to take “the book off the lectern for display and puts it into the hands of readers” (James Hart, Director of the Bancroft Library). Barry Moser’s 100 woodcuts are a delight in this edition.

  17. The 40th anniversary of Leviathan, the first commercial typeface by Bigelow & Holmes, will be celebrated on February 1, 2018 at the RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection.

  18. Holly Robinson says:
    Jul 6th, 2019 8:47 am

    Dear Nick,

    Well done on creating this amazing site! It’s awesome and very interesting – well detailed with a balance of pictures and text. I LOVE the book 'Moby Dick’ and I’m sure everyone else does too. I agree with Tom. The footnotes are a bit cramped – but please keep creating more and more sites like this! Great work.

Post a comment