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Non-text
Ellen Lupton
This essay contains 5,456 illustrations—that’s counting all the characters on the page. Every letter, every comma, every dot at the close of a sentence is a picture of sorts, representing a fragment of sound or signaling a structural break in the flow of language. In the normal experience of reading, we rarely pause to contemplate the physical shape or assigned meaning of individual glyphs. Indeed, when we focus our eyes on the ribbon-like curves of a Garamond “a” or the quirky front leg of Helvetica’s “R,” we are no longer reading in the normal sense at all. We are watching language with the sound turned off.

This essay contains 1,048 images—that’s counting each word. Words are the building blocks of speech. The letters of the alphabet are an analysis, an abstraction, a decomposition of natural wholes into artificial parts. When reading a familiar language, we ignore writing’s false division of text into separate slivers of sound. Slow down and observe your experience of reading this text. You are grasping whole words and clumps of words, making forests out of trees. Each word is a picture, its ascenders and descenders, its curves and angles, coming together in a unique profile.

Experts in the teaching of reading have long battled over the value of “phonics” versus “whole language” in helping young children learn to read. Phonics instruction emphasizes the sounds of letters (“A is for apple”), while the whole language method seeks to repeat particular words over and over so that children become familiar with their overall shapes. Which method is more useful for early learners remains a matter of scientific and ideological debate, but it is well established that once we internalize literacy as a skill, we fly through text, absorbing the flood of discrete characters in bigger chunks. The letters remain, but their individual identity recedes.

Every typographer knows this. Designing a typeface—or just choosing one to use in your own project—demands looking at how glyphs sit together and form into words and sentences and columns of text. A type design begins with individual characters, but its life or death depends on how those characters play together. Different typefaces turn the same words into different pictures. The remarkable web app Wordmark (http://wordmark.it/), created by Turkish designer Fahri Özkaramanlı, loads every typeface currently active on the user’s computer, allowing users to type a short text into the browser and quickly see and compare those words in dozens of different typefaces. Try it with your own name to experience the internal specificity and potential variety of a wordmark. Nabokov famously savored the sound of Lolita’s name and the way it felt in his mouth: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Lolita’s visual silhouette is equally seductive, rising and falling in short spikes around her low soft curves. (She looks younger and prettier in lowercase: lolita.)

My own memory of learning to read revolves around the precisely labeled universe of Richard Scarry’s Busy Town. Every creature, place, and wheeled conveyance in Busy Town has its own name, written down in 14 pt. Century Expanded. As a child I could read the words, but I could also read the pictures. Scarry scattered his simple pen-and-wash drawings across the page, separating them with white space: sports car, school bus, station wagon; farmer, nurse, taxi driver. Sometimes, he placed his objects onto tilted spaces with an even scale from front to back, bottom to top—an encyclopedia of kitchen tools, for example, occupies the wondrous white countertop of Richard Scarry’s kitchen. Scarry arranged images like words, creating a magically legible world.

This essay has 6,491 images—including the spaces between words. Without those spaces, the wordmarks would mash against their neighbors and form a faceless crowd. Such spaces don’t happen when we speak. (Stop and listen; you can’t hear them.) Spaces didn’t exist in the earliest uses of the Greek alphabet, but scribes soon discovered that putting a gap between words made text easier to comprehend. More silent sisters soon entered the scene, their movements becoming a codified and rule-bound ballet with the rise of print. After the Renaissance, marks of punctuation and differences such as UPPERCASE/lowercase and roman/italic became standard features of written communication. We’d be lost today without them.

Paragraphs are pictures, too. We don’t speak in paragraphs. (I’ve met some people who barely speak in sentences.) A paragraph is a literary convention, a rhetorical nicety designed to make the experience of reading a bit more endurable. What is a paragraph, anyway? You’ll know one when you see one. (This essay has eight.) Since the seventeenth century, the indent (paired with a line break) has been a ubiquitous convention of Western typography. The indent replaced ¶, a concrete symbol lodged in the text with no space around it. Indents let some air in the room, allowing readers to see their content in smaller units. Alas, as the curtains closed on the last millennium, along came HTML, whose pesky <p> element adds space around every paragraph, padding our browsers with wasted white space and relegating the elegant, efficient indent to a tricky work-around mastered by only the most finicky web typographers.

What is non-text? Artists and designers have long explored the pictorial potential of the written word. The works catalogued on the following pages confront writing as a visual phenomenon. They implore us to seek out “visual meaning” in place of “verbal structures,” to receive aesthetic experiences in place of a written messages. In these works, letters becomes textures, patterns, and sculptures made of wax. They form fragile skylines, alien landscapes, and characters in a fairy tale. They splinter, shatter, bend, and overlap. And yet readers—indoctrinated by the regime of the alphabet for as long as we can remember—can never fully deactivate writing’s verbal will. Literacy dominates our consciousness. “A” will always be for “apple.” Writing’s shape and texture insinuates itself into certain registers of the mind, imploring to be decoded, begging to be heard even when reading becomes impossible. Making typography shut up is a difficult task indeed. That difficulty, that tension between seeing and reading, is what the work collected here seeks so hard to exploit.