Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Psychology of the Printed Page By Harry Peck 1909


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There used to be a perennially recurring gibe directed against amateurs in writing, and especially against women amateurs, to the effect that the "copy" which they sent to editors was in the form of manuscript written on both sides of the paper and tied with a blue ribbon. In these days, and since the invention of the typewriter, even amateurs know better than to do a thing like that; yet neither they nor many professional writers and makers of literature consider with sufficient care the value and the very serious importance of the external form in which their thoughts, their narratives, and their descriptions are laid before the editor and, after him, the public. The subject is not a trifling one; and an analysis of it and of some of the elementary principles that underlie it is well deserving of attention.

To go back to the very beginning, why is it better, in submitting anything to an editor or to the reader for a publishing house, to have it typewritten rather than to send it in the form of manuscript? Ninety-nine persons out of a hundred will answer immediately: "Oh, because typewriting is easier to read than handwriting; and very likely an editor will not trouble himself over a manuscript; whereas, if it had been typewritten, he would be quite willing to examine it." That theory has no truth in it, at least according to the meaning which it is intended to convey. An editor or a publisher's reader examines everything that is submitted to him; in the first place, because it is his business to do so, and in the second place, because he is always on the alert for something original and striking, and he never knows before reading it, whether even the roughest scrawl may not contain something that is worth his while.

The real advantage of the typewritten copy over the manuscript is one that depends upon a principle which Herbert Spencer was the first to notice carefully. This is the principle of the Economy of Attention, and its relation to the subject now under discussion ought to be well weighed by everyone who writes for publication. When this is done, the reason will be plain why it is more advantageous for an author to have his copy read in a typewritten form rather than in his own handwriting. In examining any piece of literary work with intelligence and critical judgment, it is greatly to be desired that the mind should not be distracted from the real task before it, and that it should be directed wholly to the thought, the style, and the feeling of the writer, and to nothing else whatever. Now, in reading a manuscript in almost anyone's chirography, the mind can not possibly concentrate its whole attention upon the only things that really count. First of all, some little time is needed to adjust one's eye to the ordinary peculiarities of the writing; and this, at the very outset, divides the attention and makes necessary a conscious effort which is unfavourable to concentrated thought. Then, again, there are always special peculiarities which occur and re-occur; and every time that one of these is met, it checks to some extent the current of thought and, if often repeated, results in giving a blurred impression in place of an impression that is clean-cut and distinct. Of course, when the handwriting is very bad, this is all very much intensified; and it often happens that after the reader has laid down the manuscript, he can remember very little about its contents, because his attention has been so greatly divided that he has really given the larger part of it to the purely mechanical difficulties of his task.

Yet there is something else which is less obvious than what has just been described, though fully as important. In reading manuscript, you necessarily (and because of the reasons already mentioned) read it line by line—sometimes almost word by word; whereas, if set forth in print, you get a certain perspective and a certain completeness as you read, so that you see not only the isolated expressions and the separate phrases, but also their relation to what goes before and to what comes immediately after. In other words, you can easily criticise the writer's sense of unity and harmony and proportion.

Reading anything in manuscript is like judging an army by inspecting each soldier individually. Reading a printed page is like seeing an army in the field and watching its evolutions, which exhibit not only the individual soldiers, but the formation and the inter-relation of companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades. It is, indeed, impossible to judge accurately any piece of literary work until you read it with a perfect unconsciousness of everything that is external to the writer's thought and to his expression of it. The typography, the mechanical means by which thought and expression pass through the eye into the brain, ought to be like a sheet of flawless crystal, so clear that you can gaze through it without ever being conscious that it is there. To my mind, indeed, the innermost soul of any literary creation can never be seen in all its clarity and truth until one views it through the medium of the printed page, in which there must be absolutely nothing to divide attention, to interrupt the thought, or to offend one's sense of form.

This last remark inevitably opens up another phase of the subject that I have been considering, and it takes us into a wider and more interesting field. In the printed page, apart from typographical errors (which, as they are mere accidents, need not be mentioned), what is it that may enter to divide attention and to offend our sense of form? And, moreover, if the typographical arrangement can interfere with one's pleasure and can do something to mar the effect of what we read, may it not be possible, on the other hand, that there are certain principles of typography which if properly observed may augment that pleasure and heighten the satisfaction of the reader without his ever being conscious of the cause, just as some of Mr. Swinburne's concealed alliterations charm the ear and give to the lines a hidden harmony whose source we do not recognise until we come to analyse the verses? Or, to put the question more directly, can an author, by taking thought about the typographical arrangement of his printed work, give to that work a greater power to interest and attract than it would possess were its arrangement left to the mercies of the proof-reader and compositors who follow blindly an "office system"?

I think decidedly that he can. In fact, I would go still further and say that while a really interesting book can not be made dull nor a dull book interesting, even by a psychological typographer, it is entirely possible to print an interesting book in such a way that at first sight it shall seem to be a dull one, and in like manner to print a dull book in such a way that at first sight it shall seem to be interesting. Every one of us has many times picked up a book and turned its pages over in a casual sort of fashion and then put it down with the remark: "That looks like a tiresome book," or again, "That book looks readable." How is it that we come to form such instinctive judgments as these? Why does one book "look tiresome" and another seem to be attractive? For either opinion there is always a good and sufficient reason, and it would be well if authors, in their own interest, should try to learn just what the reason is.

A book is like a human being. You meet a person for the first time and your immediate impression of him is necessarily based upon what is wholly superficial. You judge him by his face, his manner, his voice, and even by his clothes; and you are attracted or repelled by the combination of all these purely extraneous attributes. Further acquaintance may show that your first impression was incorrect. The man whose eye is dull, whose manner is awkward, and whose appearance is slovenly, may turn out to have an interesting mind and a heart of gold. Another, whose face attracts you, whose manners are perfect, and whose personal appearance is immaculate, may have an empty head or an evil heart. But just as it would be better if all of us could possess not only internal merit but external polish, so is it also with any book. In what way, then, can the typography of a printed page contribute to the reader's interest without dividing his attention? There enter here two principles, of which the first is the principle of Variety, and the second the principle of Fitness. Both of them in part subserve the principle of Economy of Attention.

The principle of Variety is first involved in the division of the text into paragraphs. This is the initial step toward making the printed page take on an interesting look. A solid unbroken mass of words is of all things the most repellant to a person who takes up a volume and looks it over; for here solidity of appearance is taken as synonymous with heaviness and even dullness of content. This effect is largely eliminated and the page is noticeably lightened as soon as it is judiciously paragraphed. We then feel that our author is not wearily pursuing a single train of thought, but that he possesses the mental mobility which allows him to shift his ground before he becomes monotonous. The division into paragraphs, however, should be very carefully made, and not in any arbitrary fashion; since the perfect paragraph contains the development of a single idea, and it ought not to end until that development has been fully rounded out. There is, however, almost always a slight transition in the thought as one develops it, from one phase to another, and at this point of transition a new paragraph may always very properly begin. Too short paragraphs are quite as bad as paragraphs that are too long; for while the latter make the page seem heavy, the former make it seem scatterbrained and scrappy, as though the writer had dashed from one idea to another without giving adequate treatment to any one of them. This is a great defect in many of the books that are printed in France, which sometimes commence a new paragraph almost with every sentence. I fancy that this practice began with the feuilletonistes of the Parisian journals, who are paid by the line and who, in paragraphing liberally, eke out a few more francs by splitting up their text without any reference to unity or continuity.

In writing a novel, a solid paragraph at the beginning is a bad thing. The reader has not as yet become interested; and when he meets at the outset a long piece of description or a diffuse preliminary explanation, he feels that he is being compelled, as it were, to work his way into the story and to submit to a certain amount of boredom before his interest is aroused. This is a terrible defect in Sir Walter Scott's first novel, Waverley, wherein the real action of the story does not commence until one reaches the end of about forty pages of almost irrelevant discourse. Scott's was a leisurely and easy-going age, and the traditions of Mademoiselle de Scudery still lingered in it. Were Waverley to appear to-day for the first time, it is doubtful whether anyone would ever have the patience to get far enough along in it to discover that it is, after all, a work of genius. The novel which commences with a conversation is the novel which commences best. When you take it up, you see that there is no preliminary penance to be exacted of you, but that you can plunge at once into the middle of the action; whereas the long introductory paragraph gives you the same feeling that you have whenever you make a call and are kept for half an hour waiting in the drawing-room, with this additional disadvantage in the case of the novel that you are not even aware in advance whether the person on whom you are calling is one whom you really care to see after all.

Variety and lightness are still further gained by the judicious use of capital letters, of italics, of quotation-marks, and sometimes (though sparingly) of a line or two of verse, which requires the use of a smaller type. Capital letters, of course, come in mainly through the employment of proper names. In novels and stories this, from the nature of the case, adjusts itself. In other kinds of writing, however, as, for instance, in essays and exposition, the author ought to bear the point in mind. Lest someone should say that this is an absurdly mechanical way of looking at literary composition, I would point out that the principle involved rests upon a very sound psychological basis. Why, in an essay, for example, does a page appear to be more readable when it contains a number of words commencing with capital letters? It is not merely because these letters afford variety to the eye, but it is because they indicate that the writer is not indulging in generalities or in abstractions, but that he is giving concrete instances, illustrations, and examples—in other words, that he is interesting. For in all writing, the strongest effects are produced by the citation of specific instances, since these come home with the greatest force to the reader's mind—a principle laid down by Horace when he said that the story-telling Homer was a more effective teacher of moral philosophy than was the abstract reasoner, Chrysippus.

Italics, here and there employed, afford another very useful means of securing the effect of variety. When used to indicate the title of a book, the name of a ship, or the introduction of a foreign word or phrase, they produce the impression of vivacity and colour, and never fail to catch the eye as one looks along the printed page. Quotation-marks are even more valuable as a means to the same end. They embody the suggestion of something piquant, unexpected, or unusual, because they imply that the writer has quoted something that is particularly worth the attention of the reader. By all these devices, therefore, a printed page may be transformed, in appearance at least, from one that is characterless and tiresome into one that has the outward indications of attractiveness and personality and interest.

Some may say, of course, that the principle of Variety seems on the face of it quite contradictory to the principle of Economy of Attention. Does not variety itself imply an attention that is divided? Hardly; for the variety which interests and which is an essential part of an impression as a whole is one of the most powerful factors in riveting attention upon the work in hand. Indeed, there are few things more fatal than monotony to continuous and undiverted mental effort. Take down a volume of Lucretius and read three pages of his poetry aloud. His hexameters have the same majestic roll and cadence that mark the later lines of Vergil; but in Lucretius this roll and cadence soon take on a certain sameness, so that presently you discover that your thoughts are wandering from his argument to other things, and that you are conscious only of the sound. With the hexameters of Vergil this is not the case, since he has introduced into them the principle of Variety by contriving with consummate art so many delicate changes of rhythm, so many shiftings of the caesura, and so delightful a diversity in the division of his lines, as to destroy monotony and thereby keep the mind intent upon what he is saying, while the ear is still ravished by his harmonies.

The principle of Fitness is the principle which controls and subtly limits the principle of Variety, and in doing so subserves, as I have said, the principle of the Economy of Attention. Its essence is good taste and a sensitive appreciation of what is allowable. For, while variety is always to be sought, it must be discreetly sought and in a way that will gently stimulate the attention and not distract it. For example, in the use of capital letters, apart from proper names in the strictest definition of that term, there are many words regarding which diversity prevails. Shall we capitalise such titles as "Czar," "Mikado," "King?" Yes, when they relate to a specific czar, mikado or king, but not when they are otherwise employed. In the first instance they are truly proper names, and they bring to the mind a distinctly personal and definite conception. Hence, to capitalise them gives variety to the appearance of the printed page, thus not only catching the attention of the reader, but retaining it; whereas to print "the czar," "the mikado" and so forth, since it is not what one is looking for, gives us pause and checks, if ever so slightly, the train of thought.

So with certain other words that stand out as important. There is a newspaper which I have in mind that is guilty of such anomalies and crudities as "Park row," "Maiden lane," "Grand street," "War office," and "Land league" —expressions in which the last word is just as much a part of the name as is the first—and also "dreibund," "treaty of Paris," and "declaration of independence." These last are quite as specific, as important and as individual as the names of persons; so that when you find a neglect to capitalise them properly, you stop for the moment in your reading, your thought wanders from the subject, and you feel a little stirring of resentment which puts you, half unconsciously. out of sympathy with the writer. On the other hand, to use capitals lavishly, as a German does and as Carlyle did, is an affectation which equally offends you; for it also hinders mental concentration.

As to the use of inverted commas, or quotation-marks, a whole treatise might be written; but the general principles can be summed up briefly. The misuse of quotation-marks is the surest sign of the amateur in writing. It is the hall-mark of the literary novice. Apart from their principal function of indicating actual quotations of what some one else has said, quotation-marks may be made to serve two distinct purposes. The first is the purpose of indicating that the writer has employed a word or a phrase that is unusual and of showing that he is perfectly aware of the fact. The unusual word or phrase may be one that has just come into use and is not generally known; or it may embody an allusion that is a bit abstruse; or it may perhaps be just a bit undignified. In the first two instances the quotation-marks mean that the writer desires to avoid the responsibility of the quoted words. In the third instance they explain that he is well aware that he is unbending a little too much, and wishes to have it known that he does not usually employ that sort of diction. In all these cases they convey a tacit apology. Now the literary amateur shows his amateurishness by not knowing precisely what words and phrases fall under these several heads. If he is the editor of a country newspaper, he will write (with quotation-marks) of "the wee sma' hours " in which the surprise party given to the village pastor terminated; and he will describe the local tavern-keeper as "our genial host." If he is a somewhat less rudimentary person, he will perhaps quote such expressions as "survival of the fittest" and "new woman" and "vingtieme siecle," and "epoch-making." To say that a thing is epoch-making is, of course, entirely proper; but an experienced writer knows that all cultivated men and women are now perfectly familiar with this importation from the German, and so he would not dream of setting it off by quotation-marks, because it is already naturalised in our everyday vocabulary.

The second use of quotation-marks is to convey a sort of contempt when one employs an expression which is rather usual and by amateurs regarded as allowable, but which the professional person wishes to discredit. Such are the words "brainy," "talented," "locate," and a host of others. Mr. E. L. Godkin was a master of the art of making a current phrase ridiculous by this typographical device. Such political expressions as "point with pride," "jamming it through," "visiting statesmen," "something equally as good," "leading citizen" and "a friend to silver" were so pilloried by him in this way that only an amateur can now ever dream of using them with any serious intent.

A regard for the principle of Fitness will take all these things into careful account and will never dismiss them as being of slight importance. Side by side also with other typographical matters is the question of punctuation, which most writers unwisely leave wholly to the compositor and proof-reader in the belief that punctuation is a purely mechanical and formal thing for which there exist definite, rigid rules that can be applied by any one. There never was a more egregious error. There are rules for punctuation as there are rules for painting and rules for elocution; but these rules are for the guidance of the ignorant beginner in his earliest attempts. They do not guide the finished artist or the consummate orator. And so with punctuation. Its rules are general rules, and at the best are only roughly true. The higher punctuation has an unrecognised, yet in its way an important, share in aiding the perfect utterance of recorded thought. It rests wholly upon psychological principles, since it is a device to make the writer's meaning absolutely unmistakable, and hence it, too, is an expression of his personality.

The summing up of the whole subject is that the arrangement, the typographical system, and the punctuation of the printed page, if studied carefully and with discrimination, can do very much for any author. A knowledge of them can not make the fortune of a book that ought to live, nor can it save a book that ought to die. But it may secure for the first a quicker recognition, and it may sometimes preserve the latter from that severest condemnation of the critic which takes the form of an impenetrable silence.

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