Sight Reading

July 12, 2008

For a printable version click: sight-reading.pdf


It’s next time again.

Chances are, reading is a mental and sensual (perhaps even haptic ) pleasure for you. You probably like the feel of a book in your hand and the tactile surround as you turn the pages along with a cup of tea or glass of wine. A good read in a favorite chair signifies a relationship with the printed word which you have nurtured over time. How is this relationship different on the computer? People might say you can’t have that sort of cozy relationship with the computer but actually the experience should be much more absorbing because the possibilities are endless!

I think part of the problem is related to how much time we spend working on the computer. There is a certain satisfaction with speed and making the screen move. A motionless screen, unlike the static printed page, is a calamity. We want "do things" on the computer. It seems to me the computer screen is the very enemy of slowness.

How we see connects to how we think. But it was not always so. Originally, ideas were funneled through your ears instead of your eyes. The great Greek (and Indian) epic poems were first listened to rather than read. The world of ideas was spoken and immediate. Then, when the written and eventually printed word arrived, the realm of ideas was hijacked by the eyes and we’ve never been the same since.

The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasma references the printed word as a seismic shift in the communication of ideas. He explains how sight kidnapped the intellect and ransomed thought through the tyranny of the eyes.

“In Western Culture, sight has historically been regarded as the noblest of the senses, and thinking itself thought of in terms of seeing. . . . Since the Greeks, knowledge has become analogous with clear vision and light is regarded as the metaphor for truth.”

I am fascinated with this connection between the eye and the intellect. From where does the pleasure come? There is a sublime moment when the process of reading becomes effortless and one feels connected to the mind of the writer. The individual words run together and are blended into ideas which blossom in the mind. It is pretty amazing when you stop and think about it. Thoughts flow through the written word into the eyes as if one were listening to music. It seems to me the pleasure is contained within the effortless flow of the story as the imagination is conjured by words.

For many people, reading off a computer screen is tedious. As you skim this on your laptop or monitor, why is your attention span so different than if you were reading this in print? Most of us love to read, but it took a lot of effort to learn how to do it. Perhaps reading for pleasure, on the computer, is a struggle akin to mastering the challenge of “Look Jane, see Dick run.”


Vaporetto on Venice’s Grand Canal. A concession to speed in an otherwise slow city.

It is hard for us to remember the early struggle for literacy. I’m experiencing this, in a small way, with my halting Italian. In Venice, you ride the waterbus, the vaporetto (literally translated “little steamer”) to get from here to there. It’s not fast but it sure is fun. The seats outside and aft on this big boat put you in very close proximity to your fellow passengers. The other day, as we floated down the canal, a woman was next to me and she opened a pretty hardback to start reading on the first page of her brand new bestseller. It was sort of impossible for me not to look over her shoulder. The book was in Italian. I read surreptitiously, getting about every fourth word, but I got the gist of the first paragraph of her novel and experienced, all over again, the joy of a ten year old when the mental door of reading opens by a little crack and reveals a luminous new world. It was a revelation.

It was here, in Venice, among other great medieval cities, where printing books first became a more popular art form. The great thing about Venice is that it still feels like a medieval city. By the end of the fifteenth century, John Julius Norwich explains, “Venice had become the intellectual center of Italy. More books had been published in the city than in Rome, Milan, Florence and Naples combined.” In 1497, Venice published more than twice as many titles as did Paris. Important innovations like italics , which allowed for more words on the page and the “octavo” fold, which made eight smaller pages out of one big one, allows Venice to claim the invention of the more portable “pocket” book.


Two of the antique presses at Gianni Basso’s "museum" of a print shop.

Gianni Basso runs a print shop here and still operates an antique handset printing press which dates from the eighteenth century. You would swear this blackened clattering contraption was Guttenberg’s original press. His shop window is full of calling cards, book plates and handsome writing papers. You stand in the street and imagine your own name in the place of luminaries and writers and film stars like Hugh Grant who get their stationary printed in tasteful hand-mixed inks and deckled edged fancy paper.


Antique dies, cast of lead, depict cartouches, insignias, grotesques, coats of arms, small animals, mystic symbols, gothic flourishes, botanic motifs and architectural details. It takes at least twenty minutes for you to peruse all of this and decide upon the perfect combination to properly depict your persona. Gianni is a very old fashioned guy. He frowns on e-mail addresses. His prices are somewhat staggering and you’d swear he’d prefer to be paid in ducats. His shop seduces you with nostalgia and his printed papers give you all the tangible satisfaction of a leather bound first edition. His shop reeks of slowness. Also, his products charm because they are rare and defiantly anachronistic. Who really uses calling cards and notepaper anymore? When an actual handwritten note arrives, it must be something special.

No matter how much you enjoy libraries, you no doubt agree the ability to search the globe on line has revolutionized the reading/writing process. People I know moan about the death of the card catalog and the library table piled high with reference volumes, but few of them would trade those evocative sights and smells for having the information they want arriving effortlessly at their fingertips. We have become less patient. We want it now . But our impatience often makes us irritated when we compute. Is it possible for us to find a new haptic joy in the elegance of well designed technology? Apple seems to be effectively exploiting this design concept with ipods, iphones, touch screen tech, and products some of us feel strangely compelled to buy.

The new iPhone has access to a fantastic new service which allows one to put books into an online reading list. Would I prefer to read, Vonnegut’s, Slaughterhouse Five or James’,The Aspern Papers in a nice hardback edition? You betcha! However, at the airport when I’m waiting for three hours, due to an unexpected delay, am I glad to have 15 books literally at my fingertips? You betcha!

I loved the Science Fiction idea of the vast ruined library containing just one slim book. It was a magic interface to every book ever written. Now it seems totally possible. The E book (even the new sleek Sony models and the Amazon “Kindle”) have yet to catch on. The publishing industry is poised for the revolution but people still buy paper books as if nothing has changed. The bookstore is not dead, it just moved on line.

The newspaper is going through the same anticipated but slow transformation. Reading the Sunday Times in your robe with a pot of coffee is just not really the same experience if you do it on your laptop. I would miss all that rustling and even the black smudges on my fingers. I glance at the on line version of the newspaper, but here, when I have more time, I really enjoy reading the actual (paper) International Herald Tribune. On line versions just don’t seem as much fun. Why is that?

What makes the on line experience so different from the paper based one? Is this just a question of habit or is there really something fundamentally different going on? I always felt that getting an actual handwritten letter from someone somehow captured a tiny piece of their soul. This was not an original thought. It came from Albert Einstein in letters he wrote to the great sage and poet of India, Rabindranath Tagore. The funny part of these letters was that Einstein came off as the new age mystic in their written conversations.

E-mail and reading off the computer somehow captures less of the soul, but of course, some of it still comes through. I suppose I need to accept the fact that the Blog and reading on line is a medium, and like all mediated experiences it has its pluses and its drawbacks. And for those of you who may wonder what in the world does any of this have to do with making movies? I suggest, with the long anticipated delivery of “on line/on demand” movies, TV and documentaries, the industry is about to find out.

Until next time with much love,


P.S. As an experiment this month, I have started to make the Blog easily printable (by clicking on the PDF above.) Some of you may prefer to print and then read. Next month I plan to produce the first of a series of Podcasts to test out how that goes over with “readers.” In the meantime, I’d love your thoughts on all of this.


  • John J. Grabowski says:

    Dear Tom,

    In moving through your earlier postings on this site, I came across this piece on literacy – attracted to it, I suspect naturally, by the wonderful image of the Grand Canal. But then as I moved down the text I came to the story of your visit to Gianni Basso’s print shop. That truly resonated.

    My wife and I encountered the print shop during a trip to Venice this past May. It was a chance encounter as we picked our way over the canals and through the streets on our way to the landing for the boat to Burano and Torcello. We didn’t enter Gianni’s shop, but satisfied ourselves with a view of the cards and stationery in the window. We returned two days later with vague thoughts of commissioning a business or visiting card, but again simply looked through window satisfying ourselves with a view of quality, fame (exemplified by the names on the samples), and beauty.

    We both regret not having gone in (and we, of course, envy your ability to do so with some degree of regularity!). I regret not entering the shop because I would like to have touched what was there. I can imagine what the papers would have felt like given that I come across similar items in my work as an historian and curator. You are correct –tactility is part of the experience of reading a printed or handwritten work – as are the smells and sounds that accompany any encounter with a book, a newspaper or a letter. The more senses that come into play, the richer the experience becomes. Yes, the age of a particular item makes a difference in these sensory and intellectual encounters, but one could argue that those differences (for example, old rag-content paper vs. new glossy art book stock) do not make one item better or worse than the other – they are simply different, but equally complex sensory encounters.

    But, there is a non-tangible “extra” to the experience of holding a book, or more particularly, something which is in manuscript form. That is the connection to those who held the book before or who penned or typed the letter. The title (Word Shadows of the Great: The Lure of Autograph Collecting) of Thomas Madigan’s book on autograph collecting comes close to capturing this sense. But, the somewhat mystical connection that Madigan implies in his title is not limited to letters written by the great and famous. In my own field of immigration history, my best “non-tangibles” come from letters and diaries written by those who did not achieve greatness as defined by a particular society or age. They simply existed and their existence survives because of their writings. To hold a piece of paper that they held and which, more importantly, contains the words expressing their thoughts and feelings at a point in time, is truly special. Such letters are, as I have told many students, the closest we can come to finding a time machine. Yes, books too have thoughts and intellect preserved within, but the letter, which is the item created, manipulated, and held by a particular individual is truly special.

    All of this leaves me wondering of the future. I, like you, have found the internet and the computer absolutely miraculous, and an incredible boon to my ability to learn, teach, and create. Yet, I find my sensory experience unfulfilled by this new tool. To some degree the colors on my screen enhance my visual experience. But I lack the sense of touch (well, maybe a different keypad might kick up the serotonin level a bit) and I can’t smell anything (other than the coffee that periodically spills onto the keypad). I must diverge slightly here and say that I twice had two truly exciting cyber sensory experiences when the machine I was working on decided to “burn up.” Those were frightful at the time, but I remember each clearly and, indeed, I can still clearly recall the smells (the burning CPU smelled far different from the burning inkjet printer!). But seriously, what seems the ultimate loss is the ability of someone in the future to actually hold many of the intellectual creations of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Yes, books will continue to be printed, but letters are getting rarer. Certain people, with a particular perspective on themselves and the world, will continue to put word upon paper, but the majority of us will put our thoughts and electronic signatures into digital format. Not that they will be totally lost, for if we overcome the problems of saving (and securing the originality of) digitized information, be it expressed in text, image, or sound, researchers (and voyeurs) of the future will have more information about us than they will possibly be able to use. But where will “we” be? Will a touch of the keypad we used be a suitable word shadow, or will someone encounter our essence by handling our cell phone? (Just think about the manner in which most of us “play” with our phones – are we passing time, showing off our technological savvy, or are we putting our mark on an object for someone else to sense?)

    Then, however, I have little to complain about. My jobs at the Historical Society and CWRU provide me with access to the past, present, and future worlds of information and intellectual activity. If there is anything that I would add, it would be a branch museum or campus in Venice! By the way, I expect to see your card in Gianni’s window the next time Diane and I travel there.



    John Grabowski is a historian, writer and consummate scholar. He has a passion for Cleveland History and is currently teaching in Turkey. – TB

  • Dana says:

    Books! I just read a very big, somewhat hefty-to-hold historical novel set in the 1100’s. I took the dust cover off to make it easier to hold. It was a vast canvas of a story, detailing the struggle between King Stephen and Queen Maude for the crown of England and the arrival of King Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine. I was immersed in that world and I loved it. I thought about it when I was away from the book, and looked forward to touching the book again, opening it, and being in another world. The book became a wonderful, magical thing — it held such power, that wonderful story. So I felt great affection for the book itself, beyond the story it told. Affection for the object itself, a big, black book with a built in ribbon bookmark. The affection I have for my books is like the way I feel about friends. Each one has its charms and mysteries. The future may prove me wrong, but I can’t imagine having such great affection for a computer or e-book.

    Dana Ivey was the original Miss Daisy in the off Broadway play Driving Miss Daisy. She has recently been inducted into the National Theater Hall of Fame. – TB

  • Yesterday evening, I stopped at my friends’ house to share a bottle of wine, good conversation, and an architecture book found in the bargain bin of a local bookshop. In turn, she passed along a bit of her blogroll.

    “You really must look at this one. The fellow is from Cleveland, and is such a good writer.” Immediately she copied the URL and sent it to my email box.

    When I returned home, The Man I Love Dearly was snoring softly in front of the nightly news, so I curled up on the bed with my laptop, and began to read.

    Old or new? Hard copy or electronic? Paper or plastic?

    As a woman who’s been accused of having too many opinions, I couldn’t resist jumping in on this conversation. For me the answer was obvious.

    As I looked down at the floor beside my bed, I counted eleven books. A few need to be shelved – I’m finished with them, another hard-back, still in its shiny plastic wrapper, has not yet been opened, and the rest wait patiently for my attention, like suitors hoping for one more date. But, oh dear, a new media sits on my bedside table these nights. The sentences that scroll down the softly glowing screen of my computer are the words which now lull me to sleep. With an infinite number of topics, I am never bored. It accommodates my A.D.D tendencies and lets me hop from one subject to the next, and best of all, it allows me to respond. I can read a story and converse with the author. I post my own story, and readers from around the globe write back to me.

    Yes, yes, yes, I’ve loved books for a long time too. I’ve probably got thousands of them. They fill shelves in nearly every room of my house and my office, as well as boxes in my attic. The sweet nostalgia of ink on paper fades however, when it is time to move those dusty old volumes to a new home, or bundle up the stacks of newspapers and haul them away to be recycled. We accumulate things in our youth, filling our space with life’s mementos. Then one morning you wake up and say, “Enough”. I reached that point in my life a couple of years ago. I first began cleaning out my basement, then my closets, and soon I think my bookshelves will become victim of my efforts to de-clutter.

    The sentimental soul protests, “But the cyber-world can never match the romance of the printed page.” Without hesitation, I smile and tap my keyboard, pulling up a blog – my blog. This is place in the cyber-world where I met the man who snores softly beside me.

    And I still have all his lovely e-mails, in this file right here.

    MaryBeth teaches Visual Arts in the Cleveland Municipal School System. Her blog can be found at – TB

  • luca says:

    My God, it’s an interesting discussion and it’s too hard for me saying something in English.

    Maybe a book is like a fireplace? A modern heating system is certainly more efficient, but nothing is unique and fascinating like a burning piece of wood in a fireplace.

    Probably now we do “things”, while there are others (older) ways of enjoying the fact of doing things.

    Reading a book is probably related to this. Maybe fishing along a river is similar too; like reading a book is a quiet way to spend your time. You never run reading a book, neither during the last pages of a thriller. You work slowly, page after page, with your imagination. You don’t see, but it’ s like you were seeing something. It’s a part of your life that remains “beyond”, in a special place, like a private garden.

    Computers generally impose another way, they can do more; “better”, faster. Let’s say they don’t suggest us (not yet, probably) a poetical vision of life.

    It’s true that when I use Phototshop I miss the craftsmanship of my darkroom routine, but it is also true that an image usually comes out better. I am not sure it comes out faster, because certainly a computer gives you a sort of almightyness delirium: you can retouch an image endlessly…

    I definitely don’t like reading on a screen, anything sounds… boring. But probably it is also a matter of age (as a photographer, I know that if today a kid would begin to take pictures he would certainly use a digital camera, and won’t probably ever know about films and developing…). Twenty years more or less can make a huge difference.

    Big changes often happen when technique decides the flux of History. I remember in Middle Age this often happened with weapons, in XVI and XVII happened frequently with ships and weapons again…

    It’s a bit silly and obvious, but also cellulars and emails don’t have the poetry of a letter. And try to imagine a movie scene: is it more evocative a call done with a mobile phone or a token introduced in a phone along a street (and maybe at night, and it’s raining…)?

    A computer is a new generic instrument that can make lots of different things. If we use it with “culture” it’s a fantastic tool to produce quality: texts, photographs, movies, sending shuttles in the space… anything. But if we start thinking our life in “black and white”, than nostalgia will always convince us that yesterday was better than today (personally, I am a specialist in doing this).

    At the end, I propose a simplistic interpretation. Am I sure my new girlfriend is better than my old girlfriend? Isn’t she just “different”? Sure, maybe better or worse for me, but in reality, she is just different. Nothing can compares a movie seen on a big screen. But a homevideo can be a good (more private, warm, lazy…) experience too. And what about watching your favorite classic on an Ipod microscreen? In a subway it can be ok. Different moments, differents feelings, different needs, different mediums. The more our life is articulated, the more we have to face its complications.



    Luca Campigotto is from Venice and is a Fine Art Photographer. He now lives in Milan. His elegant and amazing work can be seen at– TB

  • Books are glorious objects. I love books as props. I have friends who are horrified at the idea of books as decoration or, worse yet, props. I admit to placing stylish books around the house and rearranging them depending on whoever is coming over.

    I had a great book moment in Paris a few weeks ago. After emerging from the Catacombes and heading up the avenue du Géneral Léclerc, I passed a used book store and spotted a large, square book with a tightly-cropped cover photo of Serge Gainsbourg rising out of the low tide of paperbacks in front of it. The sensuality and charisma of his “drowsy turtle” visage were irresistible and I lovingly hugged the book to my chest and carried it inside to pay for it. Before handing the book to the young man at the cash register, I sighed “AAH…Serge!” The clerk smiled, raised his arms and exclaimed “Inexplicable! La Passion!”

    The book spent the rest of the trip in various spots in the hotel room – tossed on the bed, stacked on the desk, propped on the nightstand. Gainsbourg Forever took on a life of it’s own. I tucked the duvet under Serge’s chin and sent an iPhone photo of him in my bed to my husband. The physicality of the book met the gratifying immediacy of technology.

    David Bookmark

    I also had the recent pleasure of discovering printed treasures placed between the pages of books. Between pages 44 and 45 of one of my mother’s art history books I found a newsprint bookmark with most of the text obscured by gold paint. The book was marked at the chapter “Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates”. In Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, I found a 1916 postcard from an unknown German relative of a girl holding violets, seated in a giant shell being pulled by a fish with a blue ribbon in its mouth. This marked the last page of the “Other Prose Poems” chapter. Rimbaud – Complete Works, Selected Letters held a newspaper photo of Harry Houdini locked in chains. The newsprint had pickled to a lovely peach color and was marking time between page 118, “Le Bateau Ivre” and its English translation on page 119, “The Drunken Boat”. I confess to buying the latter two books while under the influence of 1970’s Patti Smith and carrying around the Illuminations paperback with the great Ray Johnson cover as a poetic accessory.

    Illuminations Bookmark

    I would like to add a shout-out to Tom’s online literary treat – this blog. And since it is a Tom Ball blog, I’m happy I could mention Rimbaud. Twice.

    Laura Ruth Bidwell is a fine art photographer, graphic designer, art collector and a huge fan of Monica Vitti – TB

  • I really enjoyed your thoughts Tom. For me, as for most people, reading is one of life’s great pleasures but for pure enjoyment nothing can take the place of the book. I was an only child and was often sick and home from school. I spent my days devouring books and my dear Father would cycle to the lending library for me several times a week. How can you enjoy a good read on the beach with a laptop? Or snuggle down in bed with one? A good book is a real companion producing pictures in the mind unique to the reader. I was interested to know how audio compares with sight reading so I asked someone who can no longer read because of eyesight problems and uses ‘talking books’. The reply was interesting. When one sight reads ones ‘hears’ one’s own imaginary voices but with an audio book one is reliant upon the reader. Some are great but some are just not right and often a book is rejected because the voice of the reader ‘jars’ on the listener. Being able to enjoy a good book is hopefully something which will endure for ever. Think of the pleasure of spending a hour in a good bookshop or library, holding the books, turning the pages and finally making a choice, then wondering all the way home how it will be……


    Paulette Faulkner adores Venice and lives in Poole, U.K. – TB

  • Hi there,

    I’d like to recommend, on the subject, Robert Bringhurst’s book, The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, and Ecology. He is a poet and a typographic designer. Here’s a passage from a chapter called “The Voice in the Mirror” (which begins with a meditation on Carpaccio’s cycle of Saint Jerome paintings housed at Scuola di San Giorgio in Venice!!):

    “In the realm of typographic technology, ours was the century when the metaphor of the letter jumped from metal to digital form. Type escaped from the tangible body in which it had lived for five hundred years. This is the thrilling part of the story: the part that deals with exploration and conquest. On the other side, as usual, is a sorrier story of degradation and loss. It is connected, in this case, with the shift to high-speed planographic printing. In the twentieth century, books were turned, to a large extent, into typographic tenements: page after dreary page of badly spaced letters in sickly grey ink lying weakly on the surface of bleached white or bilious yellow paper frozen in a bed of brittle glue and wrapped in a gaudy color cover which cost more to design and manufacture than all the dreary pages it was able to conceal…

    …The electronic book, another twentieth century product, is still a crude device at present. But I assume that, like the gramophone and radio before it, it will soon achieve a kind of high fidelity. Perhaps in its moment of glory it will even achieve a kind of visual stereo by rediscovering the two-page spread. Along with that, we might expect some other luxuries: electronic simulations of the textures of good paper and the subtle impression of good letterpress.”


    It is interesting to me that Bringhurst is aiming his critical lens not at the leap from physical to electronic print, but at the move from letterpress to planographic printing. I can’t decide whether his statements on the electronic book are entirely facetious, or genuinely encouraging? I’m sensing the former, not the latter.

    At Case, through the Kelvin Smith Library, I am able to access a database called EEBO: Early English Books Online. Here is the description of some of its holdings:

    “Study a ballad, a broadside, a sermon or Shakespeare, an almanac or an auction catalog, royal proclamations, a pamphlet from 1600, or liturgies from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Experience the Restoration, the English Civil War, Galileo, or early women writers and much more as EEBO offers esearchers of all disciplines an unparalleled view into another world.”

    So in this sense, an electronic venue is bringing me into closer (eye) contact with marvelous relics of letter-press artistry. But this does bring me back to the haptic question, a sense which can’t be fooled, I don’t think, by any kind of “simulation.” The texture of a good book might be CONCEPTUALLY registered in an encounter with its electronic reproduction, but never PERCEPTUALLY so. And while I do value the conceptual encounter, it is simply no substitution for the direct, perceptual one.

    It is no surprise that two visionary writers–Blake and Twain–spent significant portions of their lives in the very tactile business of printing. Blake taught himself how to write backwards on copper plates to render the reversely readable version on the page. Twain started as a printer’s apprentice, moving type. Such painstaking, labor-intensive involvement with the building units of language no doubt taught him to say later on, from the vantage point of writer, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

    For all the speed of writing and dispatching computers afford us, I can’t see that they will ever bring us closer into the mystery of this slowly deliberated difference. Indeed, I fear they will more than likely speed us by it.

    Sarah Gridley is the Poet in Residence at Case Western Reserve University –TB

  • Helene Levenfus says:


    I really enjoyed reading this and resisted the temptation to print it out!!! Its funny coming from an audiologist, but nothing replaces the printed word to me not even sound. I relish the physical page turning, the feel of the pages, being able to go back and re read to get a deeper meaning. I agree with Michelle about details becoming meaningless on the screen. Its easy to dismiss or treat an idea superficially when its gone it a few minutes.

    My husband is an avid reader, with all his travel and we both instilled a love of printed books to our children. Book purchases are the only expenses we never question.

    I have been a part of a book discussion group for several years, and many of the members listen to books on tape. I tried several times, and found that I couldnt enjoy it.

    So for now, as long as they print books, I will keep reading, turning pages, and enjoying every miinute.

    Dr. Helene Levenfus is a top notch audiologist and a Past President of the Ohio Academy of Audiology–TB

  • Michelle Moehler says:

    Dear Tom. Thank you for this post. Selfishly, I can’t help but believe this one was meant for me. On this rainy day, I thought I’d take a few minutes to say how grateful I am to those who share our passion for words on paper and our appreciation for the “hapacity” of materials, inks, typography and classic printing techniques that leave a subtle bite in the page. As a book designer, I have to believe these are the things that turn an author’s thoughtful expression into a tactile collectible, and truly enhance the experience for the reader.

    It may sound contradictory, but I love the feeling of something mass-produced that still displays a human quality. Perhaps your friend Gianni Basso would understand what I mean, and I’m certain you do as well. It’s a tricky thing to successfully achieve and does not necessarily have to equate with expense. Often books can feel very slick and commercial due to sheer speed. Slowing down to consider the author’s intention and carefully selecting the right materials, typeface(s) and having the patience to comfortably space and groom all the individual characters and words on the printed page, can reinforce the essence of a great story and make it a pleasure to read. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the details REALLY matter, even if some of us take them for granted. On the screen, the details are pushed aside because they are mostly meaningless. But on the printed page, they speak volumes about the quality of what we are about to read, even before we begin to absorb what the words actually say. We simply do “judge a book by its cover.”

    For those die-hard readers who are willing to endure hours of tedious eye-strain just for the pure convenience of reading an electronic book, I have to believe that they too covet a hard copy of the books they treasure. They’ll want to capture the story forever in a physical form, and read it again and again more comfortably so that they can truly enjoy the adventure.

    We do the same thing with music. We love to download singles willy-nilly for the instant gratification. But when we come across something that we really make a connection to, we have to own the CD — or better yet, the album! That’s part of what made vinyl records so great. Certainly not the fragility of the medium itself, but possessing that tangible thing with all the artwork, photographs, lyrics and liner notes in a form you could admire in your hands as you got lost in the music. It was all about the experience — clicks, pops and all! Don’t get me wrong, I love my iTunes, but I barely know the names of the songs anymore. It’s all just too fast and there’s no real commitment.

    Are we really just doing a “drive-by” when it comes to an artist’s work and abbreviating the whole experience? In the end, we may just be be short-changing ourselves. Just something to think about.

    Michelle Moehler is a truly gifted graphics designer whose work you know and hopefully love, since she is one of the genius’ behind the Telos Website. Her blog on typography is fascinating and can be found at

  • Susan Miller says:

    Books and the screen… hmmm… I think as Mark Bowles does that they offer their own unique and interesting communicative styles. I, too, have experienced the (1) in the inbox, heard the ping of an email that might be, just might be a hoped for response. I love corresponding and reading online and in print.

    I discontinued print subscriptions when I went online (treehugger), but I love old books. Maybe it is the smell. I find it interesting that anyone can smell the ink – maybe a printer, but seriously – soy inks do not smudge one’s fingers black anymore and they don’t smell by the time gallons of fossil fuel have delivered them. Better for me was reading Moll Flanders in an ancient rag paper hardcover from an antiquarian bookstore, or two quick anecdotes to follow.

    The Cookbook: A recipe – a well loved oft referred to recipe has been touched by fingers dipped in egg and flour, there may be oregano in the fold of the pages, who knows what that ruddy stain is? Is it blood or wine? The cookbook’s pages bring back the memories of the food cooked from those words and measures. It falls open to this loved dish and that one.

    Unpacking a Library: My brother died last fall and we packed his books in a box and put them hastily in a storage unit. A few weeks ago I unpacked them. The box was too heavy for me to carry up from the basement, so I carried them up handfuls, armloads at a time- Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, Nicoll, Orage, Einstein, my grandfather’s works on Kant and comparative religion – the written word of the early 20th century metaphysicians. I handled them with care – some were once read; others crumbling from being read and reread, spines were cracked on numerous volumes. My brother was a student; he traveled deep into the words. Three worn out volumes of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson! The best part? Smelling the wood of the hand-made bookcases he made to house the words he lived by – the ideas he strove to verify for himself everyday of his 58 years on earth, memories of the work we shared, the trials, the tough spots, the laughter – it was in the words and the feel and the smell.

    Laurie Anderson “When my father died it was like a whole library burned down.”

    I read online and in print. Newspapers? No – I eschew the daily print – I’d rather search or read my favorite columnists. The local paper is so much drivel anyway – good for washing windows with vinegar, lining birdcages, but not much else. I can save a forest and check in with Rupert Murdoch in a flash online without all the pollution that newspaper causes.

    I agree with Mark, that the computer can be just as intimate as the penned letter, the book can be just as haptic and olfactory and full of ephemera as an attic chest of memories or discoveries. Both are wonderful and find significance in my life because it is the ideas – the language – in print or before the backlight of the monitor.

    Susan founded the professional modern dance ensemble, The Repertory Project, in 1987 as an outgrowth of her work with dance students at Cleveland State University. Her blog can be found at –TB

  • Martha Towns says:

    Are you really in Venice for the summer? Unbelievable. I have only been there for one night (at the Danieli) and can’t imagine being there for a long enough to really absorb all that wonder.

    My 9 lb. Webster’s doesn’t have haptic in it, so I will go online and try to find it. I don’t know what it means.

    I don’t believe our generation will give up book, even for travel. I always have a good supply of paperbacks with me in case of long delays. My greatest fear is to be stuck anywhere without something to read.

    As for paper and type, there is something very organic about it. Tactile, if you will. If newspapers really bit the dust it would break my heart. I used to know how to set type from a typecase. That’s how long I’ve been in journalism. I love old printing presses and old type. There’s a working museum on the way into Niagra-on-the-Lake where they actually let you set and print your name. Would love to see the shop in Venice.

    Even with a laptop,reading on a screen can never match holding a book or a newspaper.

  • Juan Bastos says:

    Dear Tom,

    For some reason, you have the ability to bring memories of my early years when I read your terrific blogs. I am suddenly nine years old devouring comic books. Carl Barks’ adventures of “Uncle Scrooge”, and the duck family transported me visually to lands and places where my imagination explored the humanization of animals, which has always attracted my wicked attention. Well, Disney was shared with Superman and other characters where I had the instant gratification of having the images next to the story, to present a perfect escapism to subjects like math, soccer and other painful duties that I was allergic to. A few years later, reading Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”, one was presented with a world where books where destroyed, and as a result, those who wanted to preserve them, memorized them by heart. How can one forget lovely Julie Christie in the movie version! (Just image her reciting your favorite novel at your wish…) The storytelling magic, has been with us all our lives. Just read Bob McKee’s STORY, and you’ll see how interesting the whole process can be. When I am using the computer and reading, for example, your blog – it is illustrated with beautiful pictures. This brings me back a bit, to the needed experience of the visual stimulation of those years, where Donald Duck and his nephews were my best friends.

    Juan Bastos is a hugely talented portrait painter and lives in Los Angeles. His outstanding work can be seen and enjoyed at – TB

  • Marcie Bergman says:

    It is a lovely thing this “little bit of art”, meaning your blog, to arrive amidst masses of emails. Not only interesting to read but beautiful to look at, it makes me stop, read and reflect. My first reaction is, “Oh, no time for this now” but I feel compelled to return. Nothing insightful, just appreciation for the beauty that interrupts the chaos of my desk and mind.

  • There is a miraculous moment in reading a book where, as Tom so eloquently puts it, a sublime occurrence happens as reader and writer become joined. Time and place and even book are forgotten as the reader is transformed into another world. But, eyes are not the only ways for readers and writers to connect. And by parallel analogy I will suggest that words on a computer can attain a power never possible within a book.

    Imagine two blind people wishing to encounter a story. The first assimilates it through his tactile senses of raised nodes on the paper. The second listens to a book stored as voice on tape and played as sound. Touch and hearing. A third reads a traditional book, using reflected light off a white page to decipher the black marks with his eyes. Sight. Three people encounter the same story and, I would suggest, have a similar experience as one reading it on the page. All receive it effortlessly inside them. All had ideas blossom in their minds. All three use different senses.

    Were I to select a sense to absorb a book, it would be through the eye and with the physical text in hand. But I cannot say that the experience is better than those who by desire or necessity use other senses to get close to an author and his or her words. So, my point is that the sense of sight, the sense that we all likely value the highest, is not the only road by which to reach the sublime point of joining between writer and reader. It is not the only road by which a series of individual words can go through some mental alchemical process to attain something that evokes comedy, tragedy, or beauty.

    Nor is the book, the newspaper, or the handwritten letter, the only way to “capture the soul” with the written word. But, how can a computer ever match that sublime connection? How could its technology ever serve as a way to touch another’s soul? While a handwritten letter is certainly something that is unusual and special in my life, an email can capture that same experience, and even surpass it in terms of intimacy. Imagine sitting at your computer at 2AM, and you notice a little (1) in your minimized Gmail or Outlook inbox. It is so quiet and dark all around you, the world in your time zone is asleep, and a thrilling moment passes through you when you think, “Who else is sharing this time of night with me?” Then you see it is a long lost friend, someone you have not spoken to in so long, and you just stare at the inbox name for a few moments, prolonging and preserving the wonderment of what might be inside. You know that person just sent it. They are likely still at the computer. They might even be waiting for a response. You feel them alive. So you read it and reconnect in that cyberspace of the mind.

    The postman only comes once each day. The book or letter can never hope to connect the reader and writer in time and space like the computer potentially can.

    So while I will never choose to read a book on a computer or listen to a book on tape, I think we should all look for the unique talents that each technology possesses to enrich our lives. The slow old world craft technology of a printer or the metal working of a blacksmith before his forge is remarkable in their own ways. These technologies and the masters of them impart their soul into the items they create in a way that mass production never will. But there are ways that computers can capture these sublime moments of life too, and enable life experiences never imagined by Guttenberg. This is our luxury: a choice of senses, conveyed by a selection of technologies, all to serve an enrichment of the mystery of life.

    Mark is a historian and quite obviously an exceptional writer. He can be visited at – TB

  • Steven Fong says:

    Dear Tom,

    “…the book will kill the building…”

    Victor Hugo noted that the communicative role of buildings had been taken over by books. Yet his popular novel Notre Dame de Paris where the statement was voiced was an homage to that church and a call to arms to do something about its physical deterioration.

    Hugo’s detailed descriptions of Notre Dame demonstrated he was an unabashed architecture groupie. While his character Frollo dramatically states the death of buildings, Hugo believed books and buildings could have co-existing textual roles in society.

    So it is interesting that you muse that the iPhone and digital culture may be the book-slayer. And, you come to similar conclusions as Hugo. In your case, print and digital culture can be co-existing phenomena.



    Steven Fong is a Chinese-American architect born in Seattle who has lived in Los Angeles, New York, Rome, Shanghai, Toronto and Zurich. He is currently on the Faculty of the School of Architecture at the University of Toronto – TB

  • Lisa Schrier says:

    Tactile, Tactile, Tactile. There is just no way a computer can reproduce the feel of a book in your hand, the smell of paper and ink. Lying on the couch on a rainy day, book in hand, sipping tea. Silence except for the snick of the turning page. Your mind gloriously engrossed in the subject. No possible lure of the google button . . . heaven!

    Lisa Schrier is a Graphic Designer and has been known to run her own print shop! – TB

  • Hi Tom,

    This one hits close to home. Before i was ten and arrived in amerika and the english language, I spoke six other tongues, and had begun, ever so fleetingly to relish the idea of coaxing meaning and joy from those little squiggles on the page. Books were to be my passion and my metier and an overflowing library that I am now trying to divest, bears witness to that obsession. Once more your thoughts hit the mark, in so many ways, Tom. Keep ’em coming. You are thinking long and deep on those Venetian canals. and articulating your thoughts in the most articulate ways. And yes, holding a book in hand, is a truly passionate and tactile experience. Thank you. Yer reading bud, abe

    Abe Frajndlich is a world renown photographer living in New York City – TB

  • Jennifer Frutchy says:

    Just read your July Blog. Wonderful to read, and learn so much history too! I have always been a fan of handwritten notes – I still write them for all thank-yous, sympathy notes, and sometimes I even hand write letters. There is much said in the art of the actual stoke, the feather of the pen, etc. A big jump for me was the transistion from writing on paper to writing on the computer – for the longest time, I wrote long hand and then typed, but once I made the change, there was no going back. The transition from reading a book in 3-d to reading on the computer is one I will never make – at least for any length of time. I read for work, and any report longer than a few pages, I confess, I print out read – I can also mark it up or write comments, which I can do with the PC too, but……

    My husband though, reads more and more books on some little device he has, downloads whole books.

    Jennifer Frutchy was an art history major and works for philanthropic foundations. She lives in Boston. – TB

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