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Old 05-22-2007, 01:56 PM   #1
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Location: In Connecticut, on the Housatonic River near its mouth at Long Island Sound.
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Default Cook book design rant

I have two new cookbooks, both about Chinese food. Both are large-ish hardcovers (7 X 10 inches, plus or minus a bit) with beautiful pictures. They are:
The Shun Lee Cookbook: Recipes from a Chinese restaurant dynasty, by Michael Tong and Elaine Louie (William Morrow/HarperCollins, publisher; ISBN 978-0-06-085407-2; $29.95 U.S.)

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan province, by Fuchsia Dunlop (W.W. Norton, publisher; ISBN 978-0-393-06222-9; $29.95 U.S.) (Also available in an English edition from Ebury Press; my comments refer only to the U.S. book from Norton.)
The first is simple and elegant, well-organized, nicely designed, and competently typeset, printed, and bound. It was a pleasure to look through, pausing to read some recipes or comments — no irritations at all, which is at least the minimum one expects of a book.

The second is a royal pain. Although I prefer its content by miles, the book is miserable to deal with. The main text is 10 pt on 16 X 33 picas wide (which amounts to some 18 to 20 words a line). It would be tedious to read under any circumstances, but is particularly difficult because the book is tightly bound and will not lie flat — no, will not allow itself even to be forced momentarily to approximate flatness without breaking the spine. One side of that wide swath of text is always in a shadow from the curve of the skinflint binding. It will even be difficult to make photocopies of the recipes — I guess you are supposed to have a kitchen assistant stand by and read the recipes aloud!

In the recipes, the lists of ingredients are set in caps & small caps — very difficult to read. It is made even less readable by faked fractions, which are too light and ambiguous — you really have to peer at them to tell 1/2 from 1/4.

The instructions are set in numbered lists which are usually, but not always, justified. Most of the time, that looks ridiculous. It makes it difficult to break lines so that critical phrases are preserved, and the overly wide word spacing is blatant and distracting. The typesetter obviously noticed this, as some of the recipes are set flush left — and they work much better.

Anyway, this is just a rant. The Dunlop book is extremely interesting, but it is a major chore to read. Her first book (Land of Plenty, about Sichuan cooking) is one of my all-time favorites (and it is easier to use, too). Maybe I should fix her Hunan book by cutting off the spine and replacing it with a wire binding — at least then the pages would lie flat.


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