Cover design, Gaberbocchus Press, illustration by Franciszka Themerson, 1953.
In these political times, so polarized with heated rhetoric, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across a copy of Bertrand Russell's The Good Citizen's Alphabet. A important philosopher, Russell had the wisdom to realize that certain words require proper definition to be used correctly in political and social discourse; words such as, "asinine," "erroneous," even "nincompoop." Of course, there are also words that inspire: "liberty," "sacrifice," even "zeal." Russell aspired to educational enlightenment, believing "the ABC, that gateway to all wisdom, is not made sufficiently attractive to immature minds." In his research with this teaching tool, respondents found his explication of the alphabet both "wise" and "foolish," "right-minded" and "subversive." It is this spirit that this alphabet is offered here as a slide show for our readers, accompanied by Bertrand Russell's original introduction.
The back story for designers is that this book was published by Stefan Themerson of the Gaberbocchus Press, with illustrations by his partner and wife, Franciszka Themerson. Between 1948 and 1979, they published over 60 titles, including works by Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau, Bertrand Russell and Kurt Schwitters. Stefans Themerson's "Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart," published in Typographica in 1967, is a seminal, and ironic, piece of information design. In 1973, they published a classic of collage, a visual novel, The True Life of Sweeney Todd, who would later make an appearance in a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim; as I look at my copy today, I discover that it was previously owned by Ruari McLean.
It is fascinating to think back to the early 1950s. A couple of Polish émigrés, having studied physics, architecture and painting, and having made a few art films and started a publishing company, sit down with a leading philosopher to make something whimsical and subversive. That an alphabet book was the outcome pleases me to no end.
Text of Introductory Essay by Bertrand Russell
This book, it is felt, will supply a lacuna which has long disgraced our educational system. Those who have had the largest amount of experience in the earlier stages of the pedagogical process have in a very large number of cases been compelled to conclude that much unnecessary difficulty and much avoidable expenditure of school hours is due to the fact that the ABC, that gateway to all wisdom, is not made sufficiently attractive to the immature minds whom it is our misfortune to have to address. This book, small as is its compass, and humble as are its aims, is, we believe and hope, precisely such as in the present perilous conjuncture is needed for the guidance of the first steps of the infant mind. We say this not without the support of empirical evidence. We have tried our alphabet upon many subjects: Some have thought it wise; some, foolish. Some have thought it right-minded; others may have been inclined to think it subversive. But all — and we say this with the most complete and absolute confidence — all to whom we have shown this book have ever after had an impeccable knowledge of the alphabet. On this ground we feel convinced that our education authorities, from the very first moment that this work is brought to their attention, will order it instantly to be adopted in all those scholastic institutions in which the first elements of literacy are inculcated. —17 January 1953. B.R.
Gaberbocchus Press titles are now published by Uitgeverij De Harmonie.
This book may be ordered from Athenaeum Booksellers.
Themerson Archive Online.
Kubasiewicz, Jan and Monica Strauss, editors. The Themersons and the Gaberbocchus Press - An Experiment in Publishing. New York: MJS Books & Graphics, 1994.
Poynor, Rick. Typographica. Princeton Architectural Press, 2001. [Includes "Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart" and discussion.]
Wadley, Nick. "Experiments in Publishing: Stefan and Franciszka Themerson's Gaberbocchus Press." Eye Magazine 12 (Volume 3) 1994.
Permission for this special publication on Design Observer courtesy of the publisher.