Notable Design Books: Reviews

The German Genius

By Erik Spiekermann March 15, 2012

Guest blogger and graphic designer Erik Spiekermann examines a book on the history of modern German thought from all angles, including its ingenious cover design. — SK

Erik Spiekermann

Guest blogger: Erik Spiekermann (Edenspiekermann AG: Berlin)

Profile    Notable Books of 2011

As a graphic designer, I know better than to judge a book by its covers. I know very well that not too many designers read the books they design covers for and that, in any case, the inside pages are often not given much consideration at all. What looks great on the outside often turns out to be so badly typeset and laid-out that e-book publishers must rejoice at their competition giving up the advantages of print so easily by not paying anybody to make the book more than merely legible. We know that those are false economies, but who’ll listen to a designer who is always under suspicion for drumming up business for himself?

The German Genius by Peter Watson, 2010, 2011 (Harper). Cover design by Christopher Sergio

If it hadn’t been for its cover, I probably would never have found The German Genius by Peter Watson (Harper, 2011). I first saw a picture of it in the catalogue for the TDC 2010 competition held by the Type Directors Club and ordered it straightaway. While the cover alone is worth reading with all those quotes set in Fraktur, I also liked the fact that the designer persuaded (perhaps even convinced) the marketing people at Harper to print a cover that hasn’t actually got the title of the book on it. The spine is some 50 mm wide (that’s 2 inches for you) and offers plenty of real estate for even that long subtitle—“Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century.” As we sort most books by their spine on a shelf, this makes more sense than the usual cover treatment with some type on the spine as an afterthought.

Being a born-and-bred Kraut myself, the book’s title made me curious, of course. Once I started reading, I realized how clever it is to have quotes on the cover. The first six pages of the book repeat them and add more clever remarks by Germans and others about Germans. They are almost worth the price of the book on their own and actually serve as an outline for the following 1,000 pages.  I have no idea how many assistants Mr. Watson has, but how does anybody gather 70 pages of notes and references plus an index that runs another 40 pages, all tightly set in 8-point Garamond? The main text is set in a more generous size of Garamond, well laid-out and typeset, with proper small caps, good margins, and decent leading.

I’ll probably never read the whole book, or certainly not in a linear fashion, but each chapter could be considered a book in itself—the author has certainly done his homework, and then some. The subject matter might actually be more interesting for a non-German than for me, as I learned at least some of the facts at school and at university. Let me paraphrase the introduction:

“From the end of the Baroque era to the rise of Hitler in 1933, Germany was transformed from a poor relation among Western nations into a dominant intellectual and cultural force—more creative and influential than France, Britain, Italy, Holland, and the United States. By 1933, Germans had won more Nobel Prizes than any other nationals, and more than the British and Americans combined. Yet this remarkable genius was cut down in its prime by Adolf Hitler and his disastrous Third Reich—a brutal legacy that has overshadowed the nation’s achievements ever since.

How did the Germans transform their country so as to achieve such preeminence? Peter Watson explains how and why it flourished, how it shaped our lives, and, most important, how it continues to influence our world. As he convincingly demonstrates, it was German thinking—from Beethoven and Kant to Diesel and Nietzsche, from Goethe and Wagner to Mendel and Planck, from Hegel and Marx to Freud and Schoenberg—that was paramount in the creation of the modern West.”

Even if you couldn’t care less whether modern thought was invented in Berlin or in Cleveland, if you’re at all interested in the subject, this book should be on your shelf. It’ll provide interesting reading for years to come.

Peter Watson’s other books are on my “to read” list. This quote shows where he stands: “Religion has kept civilization back for hundreds of years, and the biggest mistake in the history of civilization is ethical monotheism, the concept of the one God. Let’s get rid of it and be rational.”


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