The terrain and emotion of the written word

book

I recently read three pieces that coalesce around shared themes of the physicality and emotion of reading and writing. The first was Mal Booth’s (@malbooth) posts on his blog FromMelbin. These posts are digital photos of his handwritten journal entries. Mal reflects on his appreciation of handwriting as an expressive art, the emotion of committing writing to paper, and what handwriting can convey to the reader. I was scrolling through Twitter posts at the tram stop when I happened upon Mal’s blog entry. The tram arrived. I would otherwise have put my phone in my pocket and forgotten about the blog posts. It was Mal’s decision to post them as handwritten entries that caused me to return to them once I was settled in my seat on the tram. It was like receiving a handwritten letter. It felt personal. I wanted to linger. It reminded me of the pen pals I corresponded with as a young teenager. I was always so excited to open letters from the other side of the world. Each author with their own distinctive handwriting, writing style and tales to tell.

The second piece I read was a Meanjin blog post by Bethanie Blanchard (@beth_blanchard). In this post, she describes a favourite tumblr of hers, Together, as always. It is ‘a collection of images of the dedications and inscriptions on inside covers’ of books given as gifts. She describes the reading of these inscriptions as a voyeuristic pleasure. She writes also about the inscriptions on her own books. They are markers of her life’s journey. The inscriptions prompt memories of the givers. They personalise the books. Like in Mal’s blog entries, the handwriting conveys emotion. I reminisced on the books given to me by friends and lovers, holding their inscriptions, containing their secret messages.

The third piece was an article in Scientific American which examines how technology changes the way we read and how reading on the screen affects our comprehension of the text. The article evokes the tactile experience of reading on paper. Reading on paper engages the senses and creates a topography. According to the article, we recognise words on paper like a mental map of terrain, much like we do with physical landscapes, our cities, our houses, a walking trail, a mountain incline.  We experience the thickness and smell of paper, the sound of turning pages, the weight of the book, the placement of text on the relative space of a page. This textual landscape orients us and helps us navigate.

This piece draws an interesting distinction between reading on paper and on screen. The experience of reading on paper is more emotional. The suggestion is that this aids our comprehension of the text. The reading experience helps integrate our understanding.

Re-reading the three pieces together builds an appreciation of the different ways we engage with the written word, whether in handwriting, or otherwise in print. We lose some of this by reading on the screen.

It made me reflect on why I have resisted reading ebooks. I am not technology-averse, quite the opposite. As the Scientific American article points out, ebooks and other screen formats are a poor simulation of the aesthetic of paper books, so why bother trying to replicate the experience? The challenge for publishers and content creators is to seize the opportunities for the new reading possibilities and experiences offered by these technologies.

Given the poor simulation of paper, it seems inevitable that there will be a shift away from text-based content for reading on the screen in favour of visual formats such as video. This infographic predicts the volume of video in 2015.

I am excited by the possibilities promised by digital content and new ways of reading on the screen. Meanwhile, I’ve enjoyed my trip into nostalgia for handwritten letters and journals, book inscriptions and dog-eared paper books marked with my reading journeys.

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