July 12, 2008
For a printable version click: sight-reading.pdf
It’s next time again.
Chances are, reading is a mental and sensual (perhaps even haptic ) pleasure for you. You probably like the feel of a book in your hand and the tactile surround as you turn the pages along with a cup of tea or glass of wine. A good read in a favorite chair signifies a relationship with the printed word which you have nurtured over time. How is this relationship different on the computer? People might say you can’t have that sort of cozy relationship with the computer but actually the experience should be much more absorbing because the possibilities are endless!
I think part of the problem is related to how much time we spend working on the computer. There is a certain satisfaction with speed and making the screen move. A motionless screen, unlike the static printed page, is a calamity. We want "do things" on the computer. It seems to me the computer screen is the very enemy of slowness.
How we see connects to how we think. But it was not always so. Originally, ideas were funneled through your ears instead of your eyes. The great Greek (and Indian) epic poems were first listened to rather than read. The world of ideas was spoken and immediate. Then, when the written and eventually printed word arrived, the realm of ideas was hijacked by the eyes and we’ve never been the same since.
The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasma references the printed word as a seismic shift in the communication of ideas. He explains how sight kidnapped the intellect and ransomed thought through the tyranny of the eyes.
“In Western Culture, sight has historically been regarded as the noblest of the senses, and thinking itself thought of in terms of seeing. . . . Since the Greeks, knowledge has become analogous with clear vision and light is regarded as the metaphor for truth.”
I am fascinated with this connection between the eye and the intellect. From where does the pleasure come? There is a sublime moment when the process of reading becomes effortless and one feels connected to the mind of the writer. The individual words run together and are blended into ideas which blossom in the mind. It is pretty amazing when you stop and think about it. Thoughts flow through the written word into the eyes as if one were listening to music. It seems to me the pleasure is contained within the effortless flow of the story as the imagination is conjured by words.
For many people, reading off a computer screen is tedious. As you skim this on your laptop or monitor, why is your attention span so different than if you were reading this in print? Most of us love to read, but it took a lot of effort to learn how to do it. Perhaps reading for pleasure, on the computer, is a struggle akin to mastering the challenge of “Look Jane, see Dick run.”
It is hard for us to remember the early struggle for literacy. I’m experiencing this, in a small way, with my halting Italian. In Venice, you ride the waterbus, the vaporetto (literally translated “little steamer”) to get from here to there. It’s not fast but it sure is fun. The seats outside and aft on this big boat put you in very close proximity to your fellow passengers. The other day, as we floated down the canal, a woman was next to me and she opened a pretty hardback to start reading on the first page of her brand new bestseller. It was sort of impossible for me not to look over her shoulder. The book was in Italian. I read surreptitiously, getting about every fourth word, but I got the gist of the first paragraph of her novel and experienced, all over again, the joy of a ten year old when the mental door of reading opens by a little crack and reveals a luminous new world. It was a revelation.
It was here, in Venice, among other great medieval cities, where printing books first became a more popular art form. The great thing about Venice is that it still feels like a medieval city. By the end of the fifteenth century, John Julius Norwich explains, “Venice had become the intellectual center of Italy. More books had been published in the city than in Rome, Milan, Florence and Naples combined.” In 1497, Venice published more than twice as many titles as did Paris. Important innovations like italics , which allowed for more words on the page and the “octavo” fold, which made eight smaller pages out of one big one, allows Venice to claim the invention of the more portable “pocket” book.
Gianni Basso runs a print shop here and still operates an antique handset printing press which dates from the eighteenth century. You would swear this blackened clattering contraption was Guttenberg’s original press. His shop window is full of calling cards, book plates and handsome writing papers. You stand in the street and imagine your own name in the place of luminaries and writers and film stars like Hugh Grant who get their stationary printed in tasteful hand-mixed inks and deckled edged fancy paper.
Antique dies, cast of lead, depict cartouches, insignias, grotesques, coats of arms, small animals, mystic symbols, gothic flourishes, botanic motifs and architectural details. It takes at least twenty minutes for you to peruse all of this and decide upon the perfect combination to properly depict your persona. Gianni is a very old fashioned guy. He frowns on e-mail addresses. His prices are somewhat staggering and you’d swear he’d prefer to be paid in ducats. His shop seduces you with nostalgia and his printed papers give you all the tangible satisfaction of a leather bound first edition. His shop reeks of slowness. Also, his products charm because they are rare and defiantly anachronistic. Who really uses calling cards and notepaper anymore? When an actual handwritten note arrives, it must be something special.
No matter how much you enjoy libraries, you no doubt agree the ability to search the globe on line has revolutionized the reading/writing process. People I know moan about the death of the card catalog and the library table piled high with reference volumes, but few of them would trade those evocative sights and smells for having the information they want arriving effortlessly at their fingertips. We have become less patient. We want it now . But our impatience often makes us irritated when we compute. Is it possible for us to find a new haptic joy in the elegance of well designed technology? Apple seems to be effectively exploiting this design concept with ipods, iphones, touch screen tech, and products some of us feel strangely compelled to buy.
The new iPhone has access to a fantastic new service which allows one to put books into an online reading list. www.textonphone.com Would I prefer to read, Vonnegut’s, Slaughterhouse Five or James’,The Aspern Papers in a nice hardback edition? You betcha! However, at the airport when I’m waiting for three hours, due to an unexpected delay, am I glad to have 15 books literally at my fingertips? You betcha!
I loved the Science Fiction idea of the vast ruined library containing just one slim book. It was a magic interface to every book ever written. Now it seems totally possible. The E book (even the new sleek Sony models and the Amazon “Kindle”) have yet to catch on. The publishing industry is poised for the revolution but people still buy paper books as if nothing has changed. The bookstore is not dead, it just moved on line.
The newspaper is going through the same anticipated but slow transformation. Reading the Sunday Times in your robe with a pot of coffee is just not really the same experience if you do it on your laptop. I would miss all that rustling and even the black smudges on my fingers. I glance at the on line version of the newspaper, but here, when I have more time, I really enjoy reading the actual (paper) International Herald Tribune. On line versions just don’t seem as much fun. Why is that?
What makes the on line experience so different from the paper based one? Is this just a question of habit or is there really something fundamentally different going on? I always felt that getting an actual handwritten letter from someone somehow captured a tiny piece of their soul. This was not an original thought. It came from Albert Einstein in letters he wrote to the great sage and poet of India, Rabindranath Tagore. The funny part of these letters was that Einstein came off as the new age mystic in their written conversations.
E-mail and reading off the computer somehow captures less of the soul, but of course, some of it still comes through. I suppose I need to accept the fact that the Blog and reading on line is a medium, and like all mediated experiences it has its pluses and its drawbacks. And for those of you who may wonder what in the world does any of this have to do with making movies? I suggest, with the long anticipated delivery of “on line/on demand” movies, TV and documentaries, the industry is about to find out.
Until next time with much love,
P.S. As an experiment this month, I have started to make the Blog easily printable (by clicking on the PDF above.) Some of you may prefer to print and then read. Next month I plan to produce the first of a series of Podcasts to test out how that goes over with “readers.” In the meantime, I’d love your thoughts on all of this.