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Much has been said about the difficulties of reading a text on a screen yet little has been said of how a reader might want to change the text itself. Here we can see how a Parisian student ferociously marked his copy of Virgil sometime during the mid sixteenth century, highlighting and editing the text with comments. Images like this ask something of us; how should we mark and preserve our versions of a text today? And what about other sorts of markings, not just medieval, Parisian highlights and scribbles but changes of other kinds too?

Designed by the author Joost Grootens, I swear I use no art at all is a secret, work-in-progress love letter to book design. Borderline autobiographical in nature, the author revisits his notes and diagrams of the dozens of printed materials and thousands of pages he published over the years, each meticulously and elaborately detailed. Throughout the book Grootens also outlines his working methods and processes whilst on the way exploring hidden patterns in the data that he collected. Yet before we can enjoy this particular book for ourselves, Grootens requires something of us. He asks only for a small contribution.

He asks that we mark the book.

Many of the pages are bound shut together and so the only way to read them is to potentially risk damaging their contents by ripping the seams apart. In order to examine Grootens’ work then, we’re asked to leave clues and traces of our reading.

You might preemptively roll your eyes but this is not just another artisinal book by a contemporary graphic designer as this act of page ripping adds something to the experience rather than becoming an annoying gimmick. First, we’re obliged to slow down and consciously take part in the unbinding. Second, the book is physically different since we began. Our mark is on it for good and so, to some extent, Grootens prepares the material within, but it’s up to us to finish it.

As few books consider how the reader might contribute to the final work, our tools for marking a text with our own ideas might feel limited. Books with small margins or uncomfortable bindings, or perhaps unchallenging, tried and tested designs also do little to help us to remember the book in the future, or for it to stand proudly on our shelves today. On the other hand, we can immediately see the benefit when the actions and decisions of the reader are reflected by the form of the book.

This might all be mistaken for sentimentality, but these feelings have little to do with the hallucinogenic loveliness of print. It’s about ownership. It’s about remembering where you were, and perhaps who you were, when you read something.

Yet reading and marking on the web is different

We sneak in and we sneak out again. We spend our time between modules and subsections, gliding from one component to the next like ghosts. The little impact that we might have on a website is taken up by the next person that sneaks in after us. Our comments are buried, the archives are hidden and the contents within are nothing short of paralysing.

Things are improving though. What was once considered daring typographically is now the status quo; web fonts are infinitely more powerful and exploratory, the sheer quality of our screens is phenomenally better, whilst those once common and useless elements of a webpage seem to have finally met their maker. As reading experiences on a screen have improved exponentially over the past five years, the same cannot really be said for marking, highlighting and recording a text. Our travels and readings leave only the faintest memory of our presence; our likes and thumbs are now tools for advertisers instead of trying to be the digital equivalent of a pen and pencil. On a similar note, Grootens appears to suggest that the marks and traces of the reader should be left intact. He wistfully describes why:

Architectural representation has always interested me more than the actual buildings. It is through representation that the architect’s ambitions are articulated and show us who he considers to be his peers. Sketches, models and the way in which buildings are photographed or described all evoke the published collective memory of a profession.

Our journeys through our voluminous, digital shelves and all of the sketches and models, our beliefs and perceptions of the current state of things, are left to the wind once compared to our physical libraries teeming with scribbles and notes. So there’s much work to be done in the spaces between reading, writing and marking on a screen. Yet although it appears our relentless questions will always outpace our ability to answer them, this time is certainly not wasted, as they lead us to the penultimate question that we’re forced to ask ourselves: Are these problems the inherent qualities of the medium, or are they the byproducts of unimaginative minds?

This article originally appeared in the New Adventures newspaper which you can still download and read for free.

Robin Rendle
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