09 August 2013

My People's Giant Passover Haggadah

Thanks to the suggestion of Rabbi Joel Nickerson, I have been enjoying My People's Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries (henceforth MPPH).

It got me thinking about the design challenges of Jewish books.

Like many Jewish books, MPPH contains many related texts.

So a design challenge of such a book is to use resources such as layout and font to show how its texts are related. Making these relationships clear makes it easier for the reader to know his or her location within the complex structure of such a book. And it makes it easier for the reader to navigate within such a book.

A Talmud is a great example of such a book. Take a look at this neat PDF (by Joshua Parker) to get a sense of how a Talmud addresses the challenges of presenting multiple related texts.

Part II of MPPH is a sequence of sections. Each section contains a number of elements. The elements are of the following types and "multiplicities" (how many are expected).
  1. 1 Haggadah passage (Hebrew and/or Aramaic)
  2. 1 Translation of the Haggadah passage into English
  3. 1 Summary of the meaning of the passage (a "signpost")
  4. 0..n Ceremonial instructions, each belonging to a location within the Haggadah passage
  5. 0..n Images
  6. 8..11 Commentaries on the passage
(Note that Part II is not be confused with Volume 2. Like many Jewish books, another design challenge of MPPH is that its sheer length requires it to be split into multiple volumes!)

MPPH uses various techniques to show how the elements of a section are related.

The most notable technique it uses is what I will call the anchor spread. (I'm using "spread" to mean two facing pages.)

Here is an example. (I've provided it only at low resolution since I'm only interested in the layout, not the content.)

At the center of the spread is the beginning of the Haggadah passage in question, with English on the left and Hebrew/Aramaic on the right.

Surrounding the passage and its translation are the beginnings of the commentaries. Each commentary beginning is followed by an indication of the page on which the rest of the commentary appears. This indication is also known as a jump line or continuation line. (The Haggadah passage itself has no jump line since it continues immediately after the anchor spread.)

So in some ways the anchor spread resembles the first page of a newspaper section on which many articles are started, but most or all need to be finished elsewhere.

The anchor spread design got me thinking... what if jumps were not needed, i.e. what if the complete commentaries surrounded the complete Haggadah passage?

I.e. what would it be like if you could really see where you were within the "landscape" of the section?

To partly answer this question, I did the following.

  • I extracted the elements of the "4 questions section" from a digital version of MPPH. I hope I didn't break any laws (or breach any contracts) in the process. Just in case, I will not reveal the details of how I did this. I'm sure what I did was ethical, but of course ethics and the law are not always aligned.
  • I laid these elements out on a single giant page using the Scribus open source desktop publishing software.
  • For $10.90, I had a print shop print this out for me on a large-format printer, something like the following.

Here's the result (bill shown for scale):

Here's a link to a redacted PDF version of it on Scribd. This version is redacted to avoid copyright infringement. (Hopefully the picture of the un-redacted version above is low enough resolution to avoid anyone considering this copyright infringement.)

That was fun, but many questions remain. Could you do the whole book this way? How would you bind, or otherwise package, such a giant book? As a flip chart on an easel?

About ten years ago, Michael Hawley published the world's biggest book (at least at that time). I wonder what could be learned from that experience.

Going in a different direction, how can this "jumpless" large format experience be emulated (or improved upon!) digitally? A goal being, how can you, as seamlessly as possbile, zoom out to see structure, and zoom in to view content in detail, without losing a sense of your place within the structure?

I'm sure smart people have come up with interesting approaches to such problems and look forward to learning more about them. Perhaps I'll report what I find out in a subsequent post.

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