A couple of years ago I posted about rivers, those trails of white which can occasionally be found meandering down a page of type. There must be a name for the opposite — a meandering trail of dark wandering down a page, but I’ve either never heard it or have forgotten the word.

This dark river results from a chance proximity of double “g”s or other ink-heavy letter combinations occurring above and below one another. Get two or three of these together, and the eye picks up the blob and shapes it into a river. A funny effect is how, once you’ve noticed it the effect insists on being seen further up and down the page. In this page, from the excellent Anniversaries I by Uwe Johnson (New York Review Books, 2018*) you first pick it up in the center of the page just below half way down, where we find these words in the middle of the line one above the other, slanting a bit leftwards: right, going, approving, front, office, allowed, expert, through, Berlin. Notice also how entirely innocent words (innocent of any dark type clustering) get dragged in by their position in the line. For instance “going” and “expert”. Our eye just includes them in the row because they are there. And then it begins to extend the line upwards and downwards, implicating “disparagingly”, “locally”, and “though” in the line-up. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and this is what we do.

This doesn’t do any harm, and isn’t a “bad” thing. Probably it’s only maniacs like me who latch onto such quirks of typesetting. It’s an artifact of computer-assisted typesetting — well actually of any typesetting. A Monotype compositor in the old days could have broken up such a river by tightening the word spacing here and loosening it there so that these doubled characters were no longer aligned in such a regular way. Of course many comps wouldn’t have bothered: in such things consisted the difference between a good type shop and an OK one. Desperate hot metal compositors seeking to balance their lines have been known to introduce or delete a little word here or there for the sake of aesthetic balance. Occasionally the author might notice.

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* I’m about to start on Volume 2, having just reached 19 April 1968.