Reading Simon Garfield’s wonderful book, Just My Type. He wrote about Serif fonts, the typefaces like this one, with a baseline that guides the eye.
Made me think.
What fonts do form does. The conventions of paragraphs and sentences give us the platform, the common understanding, of how we take the words in. What to know now. What to know next. What’s important. They are clarity. And guidance. And tempo. And in this day of…let’s call it open form…these elements can be much more.
A paragraph can be a sentence. A sentence can be a paragraph. Freed from its classical execution, paragraph or sentence can be punctuation, a backward look, a forecast, a directional arrow. It can be the catching of a breath in a moment of fear; a moment of alarm. It can mirror the internal workings of our minds; it can show us how we speak.
In the same way, changing the format of a paragraph—to one more like poetry, say, or to an unexpected position on the page—can point us to a different location, a new speaker, an alternate universe, the isolation of a character from the conventional world around him. In unanticipated usage, the form can keep the reader off-guard; can keep the eye fresh and engaged; can mimic the edits in good cinema,
It can also wear us ragged.
I found this last sad truth in the rewrite the other day. Use the new conventions unwisely, and the writing becomes forced and mannered. The point becomes as blatant as a cymbal crash at the end of a bad joke…the bang at the end, as Salieri told Mozart, to tell folks where to clap. Look at me, the finicky little technique says. Here’s what I want you to think. Aren’t I just too clever for words—literally?
Used with delicacy, the new conventions let us set up rhythms that wouldn’t be available to us any other way. Sentence and paragraph become the baton in the hands of a skilled conductor, guiding the page into the trancelike repetitions that help us draw out the Joycean music in the words.
Will the conventional form ever go away entirely? Silly question, that: Of course it won’t. But, as our readers change and are changed through the influences of electronic media, we can change with them. We can speak to our audience as our brains are now speaking to us.
If the crayon box offers us a whole new color, shouldn’t we use it?