The Elements of Euclid

Ruari McLean, in his groundbreaking study Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing, calls Oliver Byrne’s 1847 edition of The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid “one of the oddest and most beautiful books of the whole century.” The century was the nineteenth; the publisher was the great William Pickering; the printer, his collaborator and close friend, Charles Whittingham—and McLean was right on the money: indeed it is. Byrne, who wrote a number of books on mathematics and engineering, served as “Surveyor of Her Majesty’s Settlements in the Falkland Islands,” which, in case you don’t know, are in the middle of nowhere in the South Atlantic Ocean. Presumably he had a lot of time on his hands, for in this very beautiful volume, he devised a radical method, which he claims to have tested “by numerous experiments” and with considerable success, to teach the six basic propositions of Euclid. To do so, instead of mathematical symbols, he employs colors and shapes whereby “the Elements of Euclid can be acquired in less than one third the time usually employed, and retention of this memory is much more permanent.”

Unfortunately, Byrne was dead wrong, and like so many books embraced by collectors and now priced sky-high (one thinks of Aldus’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and Dufy’s Bestiaire) this one was a resounding dud: the wrong idea issued by the wrong publisher at the wrong time. Dozens of unsold copies were auctioned off at Pickering’s bankruptcy sale less than a decade later.

Edward Tufte, whose brilliant books on the visual displays of quantitative information were the right books at the right time, was, along with McLean, among the first to recognize and acknowledge the beauty and bizarre singularity of the book, which was a triumph for Charles Whittingham, if not for Oliver Byrne (or Euclid). Anyone who looks through its pages, and is willing to squint a little, will see displays of shapes and colors that bring to mind the canvases of Mondrian or the Russian constructivists Lissitsky and Malevich. To quote McLean again, “the page is a unique riot of red, yellow and blue; on some pages letters and numbers only are printed in colour, sprinkled over the page like tiny wild flowers, demanding the most meticulous register: elsewhere, solid squares, triangles and circles are printed in gaudy and theatrical colors, attaining a verve not seen again on book pages till the days of Dufy, Matisse, and Derain.” I am equally certain that any child, however brave and precocious, who tried to make their way through this singularly bizarre attempt to teach mathematics would have been delighted by the display and thoroughly bewildered by the text. As Sir Geoffrey Keynes observed, “Pickering may, however, be credited with having godfathered a gallant, if unsuccessful, experiment in education.”

What is it that is so appealing about this book? Part of it, to be sure, is the colorful triangles, squares, and rhomboids that make up Byrne’s argument. Part of it, too, is the total incongruity of the Victorian initials by the supremely talented Mary Byfield, not to mention a text that presents medial s’s that had been abandoned by most printers five decades earlier. There is a tension between the colorful, modernistic shapes and the archaic typography. As in all Whittingham printing, the registration of the four colors is perfect, no mean feat for a book that was undoubtedly printed on a hand press. Despite the poor paper (I have never seen a copy that was not badly foxed) this book now fetches a higher price than any title that Pickering issued—well into the five figures.

So one rejoices in this “facsimile” recently issued by Taschen, even while it raises real questions. Why, for example, was the text block slightly increased over the original so that the margins of the original were completely destroyed? My own copy of the original, which has doubtless been trimmed by the binder’s knife and is not particularly large, has a head margin of 5/8″, a foot margin of 1″, and a foredge margin of 1″. The Taschen “facsimile” has, for a reason I cannot fathom, enlarged the type block slightly and decreased the margins to 1/4″, 1/4″, and 1/2″ respectively, completely distorting the mise en page on which Pickering and Whittingham doubtless consulted and which gives the page a real sense of space and balance.

There’s another aspect of this facsimile I cannot figure out. The original was printed in four flat colors: black, blue, red, and yellow. The Taschen volume is also printed in four colors—the usual “process” halftone color palette made up of tiny halftone dots that combine to give the illusion of a yellow, red, and blue. Since it was printed on a four-color press, why on earth, one has to ask, did Taschen not just go to the original to pick out the appropriate PMS colors and tell the printer to use the same flat colors as Whittingham?

Still more mysteries abound. The original, as do most books printed in the nineteenth century, has a certain amount of “show-through”—the colors of the obverse page showing through the paper to the other side. Here is where modern technology could have really helped a reprint, for this was clearly not the intention of Byrne or the printer, and the shadow color could have easily been eliminated using Photoshop. But there they are: tiny dots of color faithfully reproducing the show through of the original. Why?

I can’t say that I found the accompanying text, delivered in a separate booklet, much help. As a predominantly (in both spirit and citation) Germanic exegesis of the history of Euclid’s editions, it may prove of some interest to mathematicians and historians of science. But it does little to explain why the book is embraced with such passion by collectors, and why it is, in itself, such a remarkable example of book production and design. The forward-looking and intrepid William Pickering, the man who called himself “the English disciple of Aldus,” introduced cloth to trade bindings, reintroduced small octavo editions of the classics, rediscovered the seventeenth-century English divines such as Herbert and Donne, revived the use of Caslon Old face—and who collaborated indefatigably with his friend and colleague, the printer Charles Whittingham, to single-handedly raise the standard of British book production—is not mentioned once. Nor is Whittingham.

Among the fascinating questions I would love to see addressed are: on whom and where exactly did Byrne conduct the “numerous experiments” that proved the efficacy of his methods? Who was “The Right Honourable the Earl Fitzwilliam,” and why is the book dedicated to him? And why, if this was a book addressed to modern readers and presenting what is certainly a radical pedagogical technique, were the very antique Byfield initials and medial s’s used?

Perhaps most interestingly, who was Oliver Byrne? And what was he doing stuck out in the South Atlantic as a surveyor for Queen Victoria?

Still, one must be grateful to the publisher for what is, despite the flaws and oversights, a commendable piece of book production. The facsimile volume is bound in full cloth, handsomely stamped, and both it and the text booklet, set in three languages, are enclosed in a handsome drop box. Few can now afford the original, but in this reissue, we are able to see one of the most appealing, colorful, and eccentric flops in publishing history.

Legendary bookman David R. Godine has recently celebrated the fortieth anniversary of his distinguished, and eponymous, press.