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Wordplay: The Philosophy, Art and Science of Ambigrams by John Langdon

Bill Gibron

It's fitting then that, as Da Vinci Code mania reaches a ridiculous fever pitch (in preparation for the 2006 big screen version) Langdon and Broadway Books are dusting off Wordplay for a new reprinting.


Publisher: Broadway Books
Length: 256
Subtitle: The Philosophy, Art and Science of Ambigrams
Price: $14.95
Author: John Langdon
US publication date: 2005-11
Amazon affiliate

There's a Zen to calligraphy. A deep philosophical underpinning to even the most intricate form of lettering and a way in which the formation of text reflects the founding principles of the universe -- at least, that's what artist and writer John Langdon believes. For him, the more intricate the inscription, the more complex the print, the greater the focus on fundamental truths.

Langdon doesn't come at this conclusion lightly. As a designer of "ambigrams" -- a style of typography in which words or phrases are stylistically interpreted so that they look the same when viewed in any opposing manner (front to back, up and down, etc.) -- he has studied every aspect of our widely varied lexicon. A graphic designer/teacher by trade, and a thinker by hobby, Langdon drew the attention of those in academia through his occasional contributions in Omni Magazine, and a 1992 book entitled Wordplay.

One such person was mathematician Dick Brown. He liked Langdon's work and commissioned him to create an ambigram of his name. The piece attracted the attention of Dick's son, Dan who was working on a novel called Angels and Demons at the time. The two collaborated on ambigrams for both the title and one of the book's main plot points. Brown was so appreciative of the contribution that he even named the main character -- Robert Langdon -- after the artist. This hero would soon make another appearance, this time in the runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code. Suddenly, the mostly unknown calligrapher was an indirect celebrity.

It's fitting then that, as Da Vinci Code mania reaches a ridiculous fever pitch (in preparation for the 2006 big screen version) Langdon and Broadway Books are dusting off Wordplay for a new reprinting (complete with foreword by none other than Dan Brown himself). But those expecting a sneak peek at the secrets behind Da Vinci's success, or keys to breaking "the code" will be a little puzzled by this tome. Instead of discussing his art, Langdon is intent on spreading the word on the value system that he believes brought him to this point and path in his career.

Langdon is a devotee of the Chinese philosophy of Tao, and in the application of Taoism's basic principle of yin and yang to his life. As a matter of fact, he views the whole world as functioning under a series of opposing and yet complimentary forces. Instead of starting with an overview of his life (that comes in part two) or how he creates his art (he saves this for the last few pages) the vast majority of Wordplay is Langdon's musings on the polarity to be found in every facet of existence, both physical, and metaphysical.

Over the course of 41 separate sections, Langdon discusses many of the major principles that make up reality. He can link properties of physics (Sir Isaac Newton's Third Law gets a lot of airtime here) to the essence of individual experience. He can tie the linear nature of time to the cyclical temperament of change. Since almost all of this is tied directly to his art, there are lots of discussions about symmetry, asymmetry, truth, beauty, balance and ambiguity.

It does take Langdon a little while to get going, though. At first, the narrative feels like a marijuana-induced conversation between two theoretical philosophy majors over the significance of consonant and vowels in the grand scheme of karmic cosmology. You can almost hear the bong hits in between chapter breaks. But somewhere in the middle of his mantra, around the excellently realized "Choice/Decide" section, Langdon's purpose becomes clear. The author is hoping to show that Tao, and its principles of equilibrium and harmony, have practical applications and ramifications in the world.

Granted, this is very heady stuff, and Langdon is not about to "dumb it down" for greater mass understanding. He casually cites Gödel, Escher, Bach, muses abstractly on the implausibility of achieving literal perfection and tries to explain the astronomic implications of syzygy. It is when Langdon reaches for the limits of understanding that he is at his best. Wordplay excels at tackling ideas that are truly massive in scope. Whether it's the Big Bang, or the concept of limits/infinity, the author really gets down to the core of the discussion, and uses it (along with his evocative rendering of the words involved) to constantly redefine his position.

What we learn from Wordplay is both personal and profound. The universe, at least through Langdon's eyes, does function like a lever, the fulcrum of which rests inside each and every one of us. Sometimes, the scales tip in our favor. At other times, they test us without mercy. For the artist, the truth is all over his images. Langdon doesn't just create ambigrams to show his skill with pen and ink. No, this manner of typography typifies who he is, gives voice to his inner belief system and suggests a sort of universal alchemy between man, nature and the unknowable.

Problem is, some of Langdon's drawings are rather obtuse. Certainly it takes a great amount of skill to transform a word like "electricity" into an ambigram, or make each one of the four seasons read the same forward as backward. But by his own aesthetic definition (a combination of visual quality and legibility) a few of his images are confusing, or outright unreadable. The material for Brown's Angels and Demons novel (the four major elements -- earth, wind, fire, and water) resemble Old English at its most formal and arch. The desire to be deceptive nearly destroys our ability to "get" what Langdon wants us to out of the ornate words.

Over the last two sections of the book, Langdon avoids the philosophical for the practical. He goes into the details of his schooling and initial exposure to the basic tenets of the ambigram (including a clever comic featuring two football players). He lists his influences, provides examples of many of his commissions, and even walks us through the creation of one of his more complicated drawings (for the word "philosophy" -- how apropos). It some cases, Langdon makes it a lot harder than it appears. He will lament for paragraphs on how to make a lower case 'H' look the same both right side up and upside down. Yet the end result if clearly illustrated, and to the untrained eye, the solution seems rather simplistic.

Indeed, Wordplay tends to overcomplicate what is basically an artistic exercise in misdirection. What promises to be an insider's guide to a very fascinating branch of typography ends up overflowing with lessons about life, duality, and theoretical tubthumping. We would enjoy learning how the logistics of letters inspire their mirror image. We also feel that we understand the hypnotic draw to such examples of extreme calligraphy. But John Langdon is using his newfound fame to spread his sage message of spirituality. There's a lot more to ambigrams than philosophical heft. But that's all Wordplay wants to focus on -- for better and for worse.

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