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The Visual Text

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is what happens when books, in the form of electronic interfaces, become far more visual than textual. Take for example Ken Perlin’s new Pride and Prejudice interface. It allows you to see the whole book as an image in the right column, to read the text in the left column, and then to highlight/search according to different criteria — either characters’ speech or strings of words. The image below is highlighted for the word “but”. I was curious to see if its presence in the novel waxes or wanes over time, since it seems to be a word at odds with the opening line about that truth that is universally acknowledged. But…

As I was doing this I realized that whether or not my queries turned up any useful insights, the sheer fact of thinking about a book in this way seems to be the primary result — and to my mind primary value — of such an interface. As I’ve written in a new piece on electronic reading, thinking visually about a text means thinking about the relationship of language in more spatial as opposed to syntactical terms. It moves us from the sentence as the overriding paradigm of reading to that of the dimension.

The point is not that we should all move in this direction, hurrah! Rather, the point is to recognize these differences and try to explore what the cognitive and emotional changes are in our reading habits. These types of interfaces will change our emotional attachment to texts, as we read them less immersively and more exploratorily. We might honour or idolize them less, but we might also become more interwoven with them as we enter into the space of the text. For me, this is not a bad thing.

Now if I could just figure out how to take classes with Ken Perlin

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