Loraine Furter

Caught fingers in the book

Illustration by Henri-Achille Zo for Raymond Roussel’s novel “Impressions d’Afrique” (1932).

Reading a book happens through the fingers first. We learn to read our fingers tracing invisible lines under the sentences. The fingers hold the book, they turn the pages, mark them. Even digital books require the action of the reader’s fingers to turn the digital pages: tap or caress to turn, tap twice to zoom. The same is true for computer screen reading, even though we don’t necessary hold the device, we still need to click on the mouse and on the keyboard to read further.

Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (in collaboration with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel, 1967)

With his famous book, “The Medium is the Massage”, Marshall McLuhan highlights the effect of media as “massages” of the sensorium*.

When we look at the history of book composition and its cannons, though, a complete other story is told, and the relation with the hand completely disappears of the picture.

Medieval manuscript framework according to Tschichold Van De Graaf Tschichold's golden canon of page construction Golden section by Jan Tschichold

From the “Secret Cannon” in the medieval ages [1], the “Van Den Graaf Canon” in the 19th century [2], to Jan Tschichold’s “Golden Canon” in the 20th century [3 & 4], book layout has been thought in such terms:

Book pages come in many proportions, i.e., relationships between width and height. Everybody knows, at least from hearsay, the proportion of the Golden Section, exactly 1:1.618. A ratio of 5:8 is no more than an approximation of the Golden Section. It would be difficult to maintain the same opinion about a ratio of 2:3.”
(Jan Tschichold, The Form of the Book, 1991)

Despite this very rational heritage, our hands remain measurement devices for books. Is it flexible enough to hold in one hand? Is there enough space in the margins to put the point of the fingers? What does the paper feel like? Theses relations to our body, these choreographies inform the way we receive the words and images printed on the paper.

As Bruce Nauman writes in Body Pressure (1974),

this may become a very erotic exercise.

Which leads me to the book that made me want to write this. On its back cover we read:

Well, here obviously you cannot smile as much as when you actually have your fingers in the book while reading that.

“Retrospective”, by Alberto Garcia del Castillo, also invents a new — more friendly — way to call the credits section at the end of the book.

Indeed, just like a handshake the book is full of cultural values. You offer it as a gift, lend it to someone you want to see again, you exhibit it proudly, you send it as a way to be remembered.

One of the oldest evidence of the promiscuous relation between the margins and the fingers is the marginalia, coming from ages where books where written directly by hand, highlighting a part in the text.
What follows is a quote of Vivian Ziherl, from an introductory text published in the book “Reading Feeling”.

In his essay “Towards a History of the Manicule”, William H Sherman notes that reading, in the European tradition, was historically considered a province of the hand as much as sight, mind, tongue and heart. He cites the poet William Disconson (1644):
‘The Hand and Meaning ever are ally’de.’
Reading Feeling, If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution, 2013 — designed by Joris Kritis.

29 June 2015, version 1.0, license CC-BY-SA for my materials.

* (there are other explanations for the title “The Medium is the Massage”, this one was simply the most eloquent for this subject)