The Surface of Meaning

In our everyday lives, books surround us—even if we are among the many who never read another one after high school. Their very jacket design asks us to make meaning of their presence, and when we open them, the arrangement of words and stories within their covers makes us into readers—even before we begin to read. To Robert Bringhurst, typographer, poet and writer, the presence of books and the story of books in Canada are preludes to understanding our culture.

From the tattered book of Canadian poetry your moody cousin carried everywhere, to the pristine hardcover book of Atwood’s latest work in your brainy co-worker’s hands, book design says much about who and where we are as Canadians.

In The Surface of Meaning, Robert Bringhurst takes us on another of his walking tours, this time through the bramble of English and French-Canadian books and book design, from the early 19th century to the present day. Along the way, he discovers a genuine image trove of identity, culture and history. And he does what no one else writing on books in Canada has done: he creates a truly national survey by bringing Canada’s long history of Aboriginal storytelling into the hallowed precinct of “the book.” This adventure goes into the depths of our prehistory, far beyond the printed page.

The Surface of Meaning is a tribute to Canadian books and publishing. It will prove irresistible to readers who love books, to designers who know their inner workings, and to many others, who may simply prefer to look at them.

Table of Contents


Prologue: What’s a Book – And Why? Transparency, tangibility, complexity, and culture

The Invisible Book

Literary structures before, beneath, and beside the European colonization

The Echo of Tangibility

Constructing culture from the Second World War to the Digital Divide

Stills From the Typographic Movie

Canadian books from 1980 to the present day


1. Winners of the Alcuin Design Awards 1981–2006

2. Winners of the Malahat Awards 1981–1984

3. Frequency of Mentions in Appendices 1 & 2


About the Author

Robert Bringhurst is an award-winning poet, linguist, and typographer. He has published some eighteen books of poetry, including The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-82 (1982), The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-95 (1995),and The Book of Silences (2001). With Doris Shadbolt, Geoffrey James and Russell Keziere, he co-edited Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada (1983). With Haida sculptor Bill Reid, he is co-author of The Raven Steals the Light, reissued in 1996 with a preface by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Solitary Raven (2000), his edition of the writings of his teacher Bill Reid, and The Black Canoe (1992), his study of Reid’s sculpture, are classics of Native American art history. Design schools and publishers throughout North America and Europe rely on his book The Elements of Typographic Style (3rd ed., 2004), which has now been translated into ten languages.

Bringhurst has been a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry; writer-in-residence at the Universities of Edinburgh, Winnipeg, and Western Ontario; Ashley Fellow at Trent University; Atwood-Roy chair in Canadian literature at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; and Phillips Research Fellow at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. His work on Native Canadian oral literatures has been supported by SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada), CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris), and the Symons Trust Fund for Canadian Studies. In 2004 he was awarded the coveted Edward Sapir Prize by the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, in 2005, the British Columbia Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, and in 2008 the Hubert Evans Prize for Literary Nonfiction.