Mikita Brottman wrote The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, a book that argues against reading books. Easy to mock? Not quite. Her argument revolves around the duty to read books. One should read for pleasure, but not out of compulsion or because your English teacher assigned a book. Indeed, she tells us that canonical classics are often hard to read or are just overrated, were stitched together from serialized forms during their day, and were given to us when we’re too young to understand them.

She spends a great deal of time, perhaps too much, championing the true-crime genre as one that can actually reap rewards. I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone state outright that film adaptations of the classics are often better than the books. But I just didn’t buy her conclusion about why one would choose to read literature – that it slowly and painfully forces us to confront discomfiting reality.

She’s using a smooth, user-friendly style; it reads well. But the actually bothersome thing about this book that lobbies against reading books is its form. The Solitary Vice breaks with 20th-century convention and actually features illustrations. But they aren’t very good illustrations, and close-ups of early pulp novels’ covers are a bit much after a while. (They are reproduced too large, and their lurid original colours are lost. Cf. Queer Pulp.) Type is dreadful, with too-small margins, a lousy version of Baskerville, no ligatures, fake small capitals, and a bizarre insistence on SCREAMING IN USENET CAPS instead of using italics for emphasis.

And oddly, her Web site has no apparent page for a book she herself wrote.

On pp. 201–203, Brottman notes:

At the art college where I teach, students in their freshman year take a course called Critical Inquiry…. A lot of the students are multiskilled, talented as both artists and writers. Others are highly visual thinkers, who find reading difficult and sometimes have trouble expressing themselves in words…. [T]hrough the art they produce, these students have shown me again and again what a firm grasp they have of complex theoretical issues – an understanding they’re often quite incapable of putting into words….

Clearly, this is a disadvantage in our language-based, word-centred culture, and something that Critical Inquiry – and courses like it – attempt to address, if only to give students a sense of the different kinds of writing out there.

This is the same lesson I’ve read many times from Camille Paglia, whose art-school students have many different approaches to literature, some of them indistinguishable from illiteracy or dyslexia. I fully support Brottman’s methods, in which students can paint a picture or perform an art piece in response to a literary work.

But to return to one of my themes here, the same phenomenon partly explains why the Web works so well for graphic designers. They aren’t illiterate; they’re working with the written word. But they usually aren’t very literate and they give up quickly when confronted with masses of text. That’s why design criticism doesn’t work; it’s too long and turgid. (And if design could be summed up in 10,000 words, it wouldn’t be design.) Why are so many “design books” just printed showcases of nice slides of designers’ work? Because you don’t really have to read those books, whose function, I insist, is to be flipped through the way an admin assistant devours the September Vogue.

Design writers are writers interested in design; even if they run successful design practices, they’re mostly writers. Adrian Shaughnessy is a now-standard example.

The phenomenon explains why designers are either atrocious at HTML or geniuses at Flash – in the former case, it’s all Greek to them, while in the latter, it’s nothing but a paralinguisic symbol language to be shuffled around like Tetris. It also explains why fonts whose names begin with the letters A through H (let’s say) are so overused: They come first in the Font menu and designers just can’t deal with all that text pushing up from below.

The Web offers a low- or zero-cost option to publish type treatments, layouts, photos and illustrations, and a few paragraphs of hunted-and-pecked text. It’s perfect for people who, rather like housecats, enjoy being near the objects of their affection without burying their noses in them.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.02.09 16:14. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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