The (vestigial) influence of support on layout

I wrote before about the exhibition on historical books in India currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you’re in the area in the near future, it’s worth a look! There’s another interesting tidbit from this exhibition that I’d like to share.

I’ve considered before questions related to text directionality. Basically, what is it that determines how we write? We have text written upwards spiraling in fanciful directions, such as on the ancient Ogham monuments in Ireland. We have vertical texts and we have horizontal texts. And then we can consider all the supports writing has seen over the years: stone, turtle shells, clay, wood, leaves, paper, metal, skin, pixels… all of which have limitations with respect to size and shape. Did these limitations contribute to text directionality in the early days of human writing? Who knows.

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One thing we can be sure of is that the support played a large role in how pages were designed. Above we see pages made from palm leaves. Of course, palm leaves are long and narrow, so the pages had to be designed such that they could be read in this format.

There are samples of similar texts elsewhere in the exhibit, with an interest twist-slash-historical-development. As the signage explains:

The earliest Jain manuscripts were made from palm leaves. Since the size of the leaf could not be changed, the text and images were designed to fit its surface. In these pages, a few lines of writing run from the left to the right margin. Images occasionally punctuate the text, each encapsulating an important episode. The hole in the middle of the page was for the string that once tied the pages together and secured their wooden covers. To read a book, a person would loosen the string and flip the pages vertically.

When paper replaced palm leaf in the 1300s, artists could change the dimensions of the page to accommodate more text and larger images. However, the long horizontal format was sanctified by religious tradition and continued to be used. Likewise, even though paper manuscripts were no longer tied together with string, artists regularly placed a red circle in the middle of each page to imitate the hole from the palm leaf tradition.

This, I suppose, is another example of skeumorphism, which I’ve discussed before. Now, religious sanctity is one thing, but taking advantages of the non-limitations when changing support is an important opportunity. So let’s consider: What are we missing out on when we model e-books after physical books? 

Writing itself as experience

A new mini-exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called The Art of the Book in South Asia presents a number of diverse historical artifacts—also known as books—from India. Here we see again and again instances in which the written word is the subject of and a channel for spiritual reverence.

Vishnu KrishnaThe image to the right (18th century), for example, presents the newborn Krishna as the god Vishnu. At first it seems that it’s a simple drawing, but upon closer inspection we see that the shading is actually comprised of endless repetitions of भगवान् (Bhagavān), the Hindu theonym referring to Vishnu/Krishna. In this sense, it labels the information—but it’s so much more than that. As the museum plaque informs, “The repeated writing of the god’s name not only turns the illustration of a holy subject into an icon for devotion, but also serves as an act of devotion in itself.” Thus we can appreciate this page not only as a finished piece—as we see it here—but also as a process, something that was experienced by the person who made it.

The image below of Ganesha (c. 1800–1850) is similar in this way. The page “serves as a diagram that assists devotees in their meditation on the elephant-headed deity. Written hymns that praise him appear in many parts of the composition. These words help readers focus their minds in order to bring the god into their presence.”

Ritual Painting of Ganesha

In both these examples, we see how both writing and regarding the written word can be forms of meditation. I’ve also written about the concept of mu-shin in Zen calligraphy, which presents us with the same possibility.

What we can take away is that writing is not always meant to convey the content of its words. Sometimes it’s meant to afford an experience—or inspire one. It’s a surrogate. Relatedly, a piece of writing can serve as a document of the experience a person had while creating it.

This is a mental shift: Usually we only consider writing as it is in its complete, finished form—not as a process. I think that’s something the writers among us can appreciate, but also everyone else.

Visual bias in the characterization of knowledge

We live in a world that privileges written information over oral information.

It’s a bias of the eyes over the ears, and it seems to include our entire conceptualization of knowledge. Just look at the metaphors we use in our everyday language: A bright person is a smart one, as is a brilliant person. (Brilliance has all but lost its meaning except that denoting intelligence.) We talk of the Enlightenment as the birth of modern science and enlightened people as the smartest among us. We say, “Do you see what I mean?” and “Can you picture it?” even when there’s nothing to be really seen or pictured.

Why is this? Of course, it’s an apt metaphor: In the dark, we can’t see, and we don’t have knowledge of what might be lurking. In the light, we can see, and we know. But why privilege the eyes over the ears? Human language is, after all, primarily manifested as sound.

Perhaps this bias has roots in the traditional permanence of records. Things that were chiseled in stone, brushed in ink or set in type were meant to last a long time. The letters couldn’t fritter off into oblivion, get easily erased and be rewritten, etc. But nowadays, more and more of our written information is not recorded in the same way. Electronic information is malleable. Sure it’s redundant over any number of Google-sized caches (and, if you put stock in the 2014 novel Whisky Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer, perhaps being stored at the bottom of the ocean for future nefarious purposes), but in everyday cases, words can be reappropriated, edited and republished with supreme ease. If I change my mind about a blog post, I can revise or even unpublish it. If I am angry with a commenter, I can change their words. On Facebook, if I am embarrassed by something I posted earlier, I can delete or change it. Moreover, we have just so much information streaming by in blogs and social media, that what’s here today can be very difficult to find tomorrow.

Maybe today’s written information isn’t much more permanent than oral information after all. (And that isn’t even to speak of sound and video recordings.) I think that means it’s time to put more stock in other modalities of information transfer, don’t you?