Texts, Graphics, and Culture: On the Decline of Reading and Civilization
Inscripturation is part of being human, or at least it has been for a long time. We inscribe words on bark, papyri, codices, human skin (tattoos), books, magazines, bracelets, and automobiles. These are the media for our messages. We use pens, markers, pencils, printing presses, and spray paint to do our writing. These are the tools by which to inscripturate. We employ graphics for our inscriptions done by various tools on various media. You are reading this online and in a font. The headline of this essay is larger and bolder than the text. A few words have already been placed in italics.
Patterns of inscripturation tell us much about ourselves. Consider books. Most thoughtful books from thirty or more years ago had few subtitles, lacked boldface, and relied on the words themselves (as semantic abstractions) for the meaning—rather than relying on the variation of typeface, odd spacing, or special effects. The text in a book does not move around on the page and cannot be altered apart from annotations. It is ruthlessly linear and requires decoding (reading). We might find endnotes or footnotes, none of which stand out on the page.
Consider books today. Some remain similar to books published thirty years ago, with their unadorned text and high volume of information per page. But many books ape the sensibilities of a computer screen when online. I am now reading an insightful piece of Christian social criticism, which considers how renewal might take place in our postmodern world. I have other books by this thinker. However, the book does not trust its words to do the work of knowledge. Each page has several different graphical effects to make its points: different colored text, boldfacing, and indented text. It is annoying and interrupts the flow of thought rather than ensuring it.
Why is the book thus marred? The assumption is that readers are conditioned by the activity on screens and will be reluctant to submit to the discipline of pure textuality. They need headlines, call-outs, textual variations, and other brain candy in order to remain remotely conscious through the ardor of deciphering the meaning of the inscriptions.
The book I am reading does not plug in. There is no internet connection. It is not an e-book. It is the equivalent of an e-book—or a paper book in e-book drag.
This kind of graphic clutter has been accruing for years. A Hal Lindsey book from about thirty-five years ago that had almost as many words in subtitles as words in the main text. (His failed prophesies are best forgotten, but Christ will come again.) The special effects cater to and encourage intellectual impatience and the skimming mentality. Here we face a vexing challenge.
All writing must be aimed at an audience. If the audience is addled by screen addiction, it will be difficult for readers to adjust to unmoving, linear, and demanding textuality. Yet we ought want these souls to learn from good books—books like the graphically cluttered book I am now reading and which prompted this essay. At the same time, we ought to challenge readers to bear down, turn off the phones, turn off the music, and let themselves be immersed in reading worthwhile words for long periods of time.
I know that none of my books will be pocked by multiple typefaces, odd spacing, and different colors. I will stick with what I know best for what I do. I will write words crafted for meaning. I am not against apt graphic illustrations, subtitles, italics once in a while, and so on. But when text hypertrophies into a riot of contending inscripturations, we lose too much of what matters most in writing. In so doing, we betray our literary patrimony (and perhaps without evening knowing it) and become high- functioning, digitally-savvy, well-informed illiterates.