‘A page of good prose remains invincible’ 2

Craig Raine’s title poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ (Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 1) is an attempt at ‘making strange’ the old-known so it becomes the new-known. We look at the world through the eyes of an alien. If you don’t know this already I won’t spoil your pleasure at working it out:

Craig Raine, c. 1980

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –
they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.
I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

So it also seems odd to say something we think we all know, namely that a page in a codex (what we used to call a book, before there were e-books) is a deliberate arrangement of type and sometimes pictures in space on a substrate, usually paper. Pages are usually very similar to each other. The chief glory of pages is their effect en masse, their cumulative rhythm and their subtle variations from each other. A foundational pattern in life and art is the tension – and its resolution – between repetition and variation, familiarity and surprise, control and freedom, expectation and confusion, and (to use William Blake’s categories) reason and energy. Having just been, on a gunmetal grey Cambridge day, to Kettle’s Yard to see the exceptionally beautiful Bridget Riley exhibition and drink in some of her colours of Cézanne and southern France, I am feeling particularly tuned in to these kind of polarities in her works, for example this one:

High Sky 2 (Neues Museum, Nurnberg, Germany, © 2003 Bridget Riley)

Back to pages specifically, ‘flicking through’ is always a pleasure, even (particularly?) if we are not in fact reading. I often go backwards – I don’t know why. Does anyone else do this? I can’t say I have thought about this before, but I also enjoy the hint of a draught of air on my face. Does anybody ever, for sheer joy, flick over the pages of their Kindle? One of Marcel Duchamp’s playful-but-serious ‘Texticles’ from 1945 invents the

Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)

term ‘infra-slim’ to describe these kinds of micro-perceptions. By necessity they come from organic objects. The example Duchamp gives is ‘The sound or music which corduroy˜ trousers […] make when one moves’ (The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames and Hudson, 1975, p. 194). Touchscreen devices are impressive because we interact with them in a much better way than with a keyboard or mouse, but the plastic is repellently dead to our touch. In a world of plastic, might not the ‘infra-slim’ codex experience become more interesting and valuable? And if it is, isn’t it time publishers start to pay attention to one of their unique selling propositions, and to market it properly?

A page on the web, because it is visually so fluid, loses any visual tension created by the tightness or repetition of the framing in a codex. This page, the one you are reading now, is enormously long by codex standards – at least on my computer. And we often see words (I hope not these ones!) running right across the screen, when legibility research has repeatedly confirmed that the optimum line length is around 60 characters wide. The (non-PDF) pages of an e-book are so motile they cannot create a sense of deliberate constriction, and we lose the play against it that we experience as freedom. Accidental constriction is random and meaningless. A designer’s choice of typeface can be provocatively against, revelatory of or contrapuntal to the sense of the author’s text. If we can choose our own we strip away a layer of richness of meaning; typefaces become simply arbitrary or decorative. And if we look at illustrations plonked down by machine, we see no human care or intelligence. (I’ve been working quite hard on these web pages, but the right-aligning placement and text wrapround of the Raine and Duchamp pics is crude – sorry.) I freely admit though that a choice of sizes is good for people with reduced vision, and the capacity for the machine to speak the words must be valuable for people who, for whatever reason, cannot read. I am complaining about e-books looking and feeling boring, but what would actors say about listening to them?

A page is one of those artistic forms such as architecture whose job is to make itself seem to disappear. It has rules and a hierarchy of principles that govern its production. Pages of a novel may simply have to avoid widows, but a complex multicolumn book may contain pictures, footnotes, diagrams, extracts, boxes, tables; achieving an attractive end result and making sense of the material requires skill, discrimination and courage. Pages are sometimes so finely balanced that a single word added or taken away can spoil the arrangement; for obvious reasons when I work on books I usually strongly discourage authors from updating or ‘improving’ their book at page proof – although they nearly always get a chance earlier, at the copy-editor’s queries stage. Errors, of course, have to be changed. Some authors think pages can be remade at the press of a button, which is a very helpful indication that the form of ‘the page’ really is invisible. These days books are increasingly paginated via XML ‘by computer’, though I cannot see how a machine can ever replace, for complex books, the judgement of a skilled page make-up artist. If quality is important, that is. And if quality isn’t important – in our age of free content – why would anyone want to pay publishers money for a book, e- or otherwise?

Book publishers have become accustomed to asking copy-editors to read onscreen; the natural extension currently rolling out across some parts of the industry is to forgo paper proofs for proofreading. This is shortsighted in every way. A computer screen is around 72 dpi; a typical laser proof is 600 dpi. Our eyes have to work harder to resolve the image. If we zoom in see more clearly we see less text at one time, so our subconscious mind and peripheral vision cannot simultaneously notice other parts of the book. Words on screen scroll up and down too fast; our eyes try to follow but lose contact with the blur. When a word has no physical location it is more difficult to know whether you have read it or not. The metaphor of ‘virtual’ suggests we have a subliminal perception it is not really properly there. The University of Reading (whoever said nominative determinism wasn’t real?) has an excellent legibility research department, investigating links between design, type, reading technologies and cognition, including understanding and memory. I don’t suppose a large publisher will commission them to research this, but I am sure a page on paper has deeper connection to our capacity to understand or, more simply, read. I know I make lots more mistakes working onscreen. And I won’t go into how much easier/more accurate it is to check proofs on paper than compare them with comments in the abominable Adobe Acrobat Professional – the only program to make Word ‘Track Changes’ look well designed and user-friendly.

The Gutenberg print revolution is generally trotted out as the most parallel technical change to precede today’s radically new content aggregation, distribution and monetization models. Let us – scandalously – treat Gutenberg as irrelevant. Gutenberg, compared with e-books, left the form of the book untouched. What is wondrous about Gutenberg is how radically new and yet fully developed his technological inventions are; what is astonishing is how conservative his productions are, how respectful they are to the past. Apperceptively – in the direction going from our eyeballs to our mind – the 42-line Bible is barely distinguishable from its handwritten predecessors. Its uncanny similarity to the work of the scribes was what his superstitious contemporaries found most diabolical.

A page from Johannes Gutenberg's 42-line Bible (1455), from the Book of Genesis. The illumination is hand-drawn. Image © British Library 2009

The Giant Bible of Mainz, c. 1452 – all hand-written or drawn. Image not to scale with the 42-line Bible (left). From Wikimedia Commons

We need to go back a further 1100 years before Gutenberg for anything like a comparable step-change of format. The medieval historian Lawrence Nees notes:

it seems clear that the fundamental shift from the papyrus roll that had been the standard book form used in the Greek and Roman period to the parchment codex, the bound book with many leaves, written on both sides, is associated with Christianity. The shift from roll to codex had profound impact in many spheres, clearly affecting the development of the Christian scriptural canon and notion of the Bible as a single corpus of writings. The enhanced compactness and portability of the codex may have been associated with and may have supported missionary activity, while encouraging a style of referring to authority in a written canon. The shift also seems to have created a book form both more expensive and more durable, with important effects upon literacy. The codex also made elaborate pictorial decoration of books a reasonable activity. (Lawrence Nees, Early Medieval Art, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 94)

Is it possible that a simple invention of a new media format can have ‘profound impact’, even cause a major cultural shift? I believe it might at least have helped. I want – throughout this blog – to explore how and why. It can hardly be less important to try to predict what might happen in the future. I am not giving any opinions here, though, on the likelihood or desirability that a Christian culture of text collection and dissemination might be affected by the rise of the e-book. In this quadricentennial year of the publication of the King James version, however, the proliferation of modernizations and revisions of the Bible is probably already doing for Holy Writ what the current file format wars will probably do – for a while – for the e-book itself. Format battles, like the VHS/Betamax videotape struggle from the 1980s, confuse consumers and make them reluctant to buy the files or distrustful of what they hear or read in the book.

So, what future for the page? Scroll (a bit like text) has verbed itself off from its original meaning and now helpfully reminds us that technologies from the past often turn into metaphors; it really is true that the scrolling in Microsoft Word, for example, reveals that it is cheerfully not too bothered about decent pages. Unlike the not-much-lamented audio CD, the tactile, visual and olfactory joys of the codex look to titillate our senses and feed our minds for many centuries to come. Sure, e-books are useful in new ways, but – as John Cheever said but didn’t quite say – a page of good prose remains invincible.

John Cheever at home in Ossining, New York, 1979. Photo © Paul Hosefros


About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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