Reading in a Very Dark Room on a Moonless Night in the 17th Century: An Environmental Translation

David Gissen

Reviewed by Adrian Johns and Herbert Marder

03 Jul 2015

This work uses the increas­ing illeg­i­bil­i­ty of a text set in a black-let­ter type­face to con­cep­tu­al­ly rep­re­sent the expe­ri­ence of read­ing print in a very dark, inte­ri­or space with­out ambi­ent exter­nal light. We rarely expe­ri­ence envi­ron­ments like this today, but before the era of gas or elec­tric light, such envi­ron­ments were quite com­mon: at night, one often read and mis­read under the light of a rapid­ly dim­ming can­dle or fire, and if there was no moon, or a cloudy night sky, the exte­ri­or pro­vid­ed no light at all.

Read­ing in a Very Dark Room…” con­tin­ues the explo­ration I con­duct­ed in the project Read­ing Hol­ly­wood in the Smog.” Both projects explore forms of envi­ron­men­tal and spa­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tion sole­ly through alphanu­mer­i­cal char­ac­ters ver­sus more mimet­ic and lit­er­al chro­mat­ic and con­trast-based forms of rep­re­sent­ing atmos­pheres, light­ing, smog, and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal effects. Both works also make new writ­ing out of exist­ing texts through this form of envi­ron­men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion and translation.

I could have cho­sen any ear­ly mod­ern, Eng­lish-lan­guage text to rep­re­sent the effects for read­ing in a very dark room, but I set­tled on the some­what con­tro­ver­sial choice of the 1611 King James Bible for sev­er­al rea­sons. This was one of the more wide­ly avail­able, print­ed, Eng­lish-lan­guage texts in the mid- to late-17th cen­tu­ry. Addi­tion­al­ly, many con­tem­po­rary Eng­lish-lan­guage read­ers are famil­iar with its lan­guage, so that my manip­u­la­tions of it are more leg­i­ble to the read­er (a cru­cial con­sid­er­a­tion). Equal­ly use­ful is the char­ac­ter of the lan­guage of the 1611 King James Bible, which has a his­tori­cist qual­i­ty: it reads as if from anoth­er era — bet­ter align­ing with the envi­ron­men­tal his­to­ry that inter­est­ed me. Final­ly, the work was set in black-let­ter (with Ara­bic numer­als), which presents inter­est­ing issues around type and its leg­i­bil­i­ty and per­cep­tion as explained below.

After exam­in­ing 19th-cen­tu­ry sci­en­tif­ic research on the ways that read­ers misiden­ti­fied black­let­ter type under high­ly reduced forms of vis­i­bil­i­ty, I wrote a com­put­er script that rerep­re­sent­ed the appear­ance of the orig­i­nal text as it might ini­tial­ly appear under near dark­ness. The let­ter con­fu­sions caused by inad­e­quate light­ing are inter­est­ing, and many are unlike those found in a Roman alpha­bet. Accord­ing to 19th-cen­tu­ry research, a black-let­ter a” will often resem­ble n” or o”; d” can take on the appear­ance of h,” b,” or o”; i” can look like t” or f”; n” and y” are often con­fused, among a whole host of oth­er misiden­ti­fi­ca­tions. The misiden­ti­fi­ca­tions work in reverse as well; thus, if read­ers squint their eyes or encounter the text I cre­at­ed in a near­ly dark room, the book becomes more leg­i­ble. Most inter­est­ing is that, in the orig­i­nal 1611 print­ing, the pub­lish­er actu­al­ly relied on these opti­cal effects. He often swapped sim­i­lar look­ing let­ters of black-let­ter type — par­tic­u­lar­ly u” and v” — to bet­ter fit lines of text on the page. In oth­er words, the pub­lish­er relied on the type of let­ter con­fu­sions that gov­ern the process that I used in this work.

Final­ly, this work is an effort at envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tion — the trans­la­tion of text from one envi­ron­ment to anoth­er. We under­stand how texts might be trans­lat­ed from one lan­guage to anoth­er, but envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tion opens entire­ly new pos­si­bil­i­ties for texts as forms of spa­tial representation.


By Adri­an Johns

The most pow­er­ful image of read­ing in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry is one of read­ing by arti­fi­cial light. Behold now this vast City,” John Mil­ton com­mand­ed the par­lia­men­tar­i­ans of the peri­od. At a time of civ­il war, the city was full of work­shops turn­ing out weapons to defend against King Charles I’s armies; but more remark­able were the cit­i­zens them­selves, sit­ting by their stu­dious lamps,… read­ing, try­ing all things, assent­ing to the force of rea­son and con­vince­ment.” This was Milton’s exhil­a­rat­ing ide­al of the Chris­t­ian com­mon­wealth. Every well-affect­ed cit­i­zen must burn the mid­night oil, por­ing over the lat­est pam­phlets and trea­tis­es. Doing so was not only a right, but a duty. And it was sim­ply the real­i­ty of the time that most of this work would be done after dusk, when their work­shops were shut­tered. It was a mun­dane irony of ear­ly moder­ni­ty that enlight­en­ment took place in darkness.

But read­ing by can­dle­light is hard. And it is all the hard­er when what one is look­ing at is a page pro­duced not by a laser-print­er but by hand­i­craft. Char­ac­ters are liable to be trans­posed, invert­ed, dam­aged, or omit­ted alto­geth­er, some­times en masse. And this too was the real­i­ty for Milton’s read­ers. They had to turn their pages to catch the light; they squint­ed at the lines on the paper, hop­ing to arrive at accu­ra­cy by dis­tor­tion. They con­jec­tured at true read­ings by mak­ing semi-con­scious tac­ti­cal mis­read­ings of what lay before them. It was tough to do. Yet, peo­ple did it rou­tine­ly, day in and day out.

What this implies is that read­ing itself — the basic act of pars­ing let­ters on a page to man­i­fest some kind of mean­ing — required the active exer­cise of the imag­i­na­tion. Exact­ly how active, though? This was a mat­ter for intense debate. There was no more pre­cious prin­ci­ple in Protes­tant Europe than that of the lay read­ing of Scrip­ture. But at a time of ram­pant reli­gious rad­i­cal­ism, read­ers could claim war­rant for all kinds of beliefs and actions in terms of expe­ri­ences they had under­gone when alone and face-to-face with Scrip­ture under lamp­light. The most preva­lent crit­i­cism of such claims was that they were the prod­uct of read­ing with a poor­ly con­trolled imag­i­na­tion. All read­ers must indeed respond active­ly to the page, but they must at the same time take great care that their respons­es be dis­ci­plined, ruly, mod­er­ate. Learn­ing to iden­ti­fy such read­ings was a cen­tral part of being a good Chris­t­ian subject.

The ques­tion of how to read in semi-dark­ness — or, to put it anoth­er way, the ques­tion of how to rec­og­nize that what one has pro­duced is indeed a read­ing—is there­fore a piv­otal one. To repro­duce by dig­i­tal pro­cess­ing the degrees and kinds of mis­read­ing,” as David Gis­sen has done here, is a fas­ci­nat­ing and sug­ges­tive exper­i­ment. It does indeed imply that read­ing is an envi­ron­men­tal” prac­tice, in the rich­est pos­si­ble sense of that word. Which in turn means that our own read­ing prac­tices ought to be under­stood in terms of an envi­ron­men­tal his­to­ry. That’s a project that no his­to­ri­an has yet thought to undertake.

It’s espe­cial­ly fit­ting that Gis­sen has cho­sen black-let­ter for his exam­ple, because it implies a fur­ther step that could be tak­en — one that is as sug­ges­tive for the future of read­ing as his exper­i­ment is about its past. What if we ask the com­put­er not only to repro­duce the dif­fer­ent degra­da­tions to which let­ters were prone, but to attempt its own read­ing? For it is noto­ri­ous among his­to­ri­ans of the peri­od that com­put­ers are inept when it comes to decod­ing black-let­ter. Opti­cal Char­ac­ter Recog­ni­tion algo­rithms have been used now to pro­duce machine-search­able texts for many sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry books. They can be very error-prone, but, in our coun­ter­part of dark read­ing, they are basi­cal­ly parsable if you know what kinds of errors the algo­rithms typ­i­cal­ly make. But if you look for the plain-text ren­der­ing of the 1611 Bible in the stan­dard mas­sive data­base of such things, you will not find it. The rea­son for this extra­or­di­nary omis­sion is that com­put­ers are not capa­ble — yet — of ren­der­ing the vari­ety present in even a sin­gle black-let­ter page into raw ASCII. And the only way they will ever become capa­ble, experts say, is by being labo­ri­ous­ly trained” through guid­ed expo­sure to many, many such pages, with atten­tive humans cor­rect­ing their errors as they go. Only in this way may they even­tu­al­ly devel­op the insight — the con­trolled imag­i­na­tion” — to dis­tin­guish a plau­si­ble read­ing (“God cre­at­ed the heav­en and the Earth”) from one implau­si­ble in any cul­ture we are ever like­ly to encounter (“God crentcd lhe Heaueu, aud lhe Enrth”). In an age when Big Data is often hailed as omni­scient, it is strange­ly reas­sur­ing to find that our most pow­er­ful algo­rithms remain less capa­ble than any com­pe­tent read­er of Shakespeare’s age — and that to do any bet­ter they will have to ask us for help.

By Her­bert Marder

Simone Weil says that the hard sci­ences like physics that rely on increas­ing­ly pre­cise mea­sure­ments cre­ate the mir­a­cles of mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy (one physi­cist com­pares the iPad to the great cathe­drals) but at the cost of an infi­nite error.” David Gissen’s exper­i­ment in envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tion” rais­es the ques­tion: What is being mea­sured? The dim light­ing at night in 17th-cen­tu­ry rooms is a fact; it leads to a gar­den of fork­ing paths.” (Jorge Luis Borges) Oth­er ques­tions come to mind about mak­ing an envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tion”: How com­mon was the abil­i­ty to read? Who read, who had access to books, to the King James Bible? And about can­dles: How much did they cost? Who had leisure and edu­ca­tion — i.e., was rich enough to read at night? Monks in the monas­ter­ies were the pre­servers of lit­er­ate cul­ture. Some aris­to­crats and oth­ers went to uni­ver­si­ties. What did they learn there, and what do the his­to­ries and lit­er­a­ture we read now — e.g., the plays of Shake­speare — tell us about the 17th-cen­tu­ry environment?

As for the King James Bible, how well did dif­fer­ent class­es of read­ers know Gen­e­sis? A few might know all of it by heart. But slow down…the con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary crit­ic Harold Bloom, who com­bines a pho­to­graph­ic mem­o­ry with child­hood stud­ies based on the Hebrew Torah, might have a dif­fer­ent way of read­ing the trans­la­tion. Were there poly­math read­ers in the 17th cen­tu­ry? And again…Helen Vendler, in The Art of Shakespeare’s Son­nets,” gives pho­to­graph­ic repro­duc­tions of the 1609 quar­to Son­nets,” along with a mod­ern­ized ver­sion. Read­ing the most famous son­nets in the Eng­lish lan­guage as a 17th-cen­tu­ry read­er would have read them, one knows instant­ly that we are in a dif­fer­ent world. The fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion about light­ing and envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tion” can be used to mea­sure some­thing with some degree of pre­ci­sion. Or it can be used as a gar­den of fork­ing paths, that is, an inge­nious provo­ca­tion or an invi­ta­tion, in John Cage’s terms, to pur­pose­less play.”

religontechnologyhistoryliteraturereadingenvironmental translation


David Gis­sen is a his­to­ri­an, the­o­rist, cura­tor, and crit­ic whose work exam­ines his­to­ries and the­o­ries of archi­tec­ture, land­scapes, envi­ron­ments, and cities. His recent work focus­es on devel­op­ing a nov­el con­cept of nature in archi­tec­tur­al thought and exper­i­men­tal forms of archi­tec­tur­al his­tor­i­cal prac­tice. Gis­sen is the author of Man­hat­tan Atmos­pheres: Archi­tec­ture, the Inte­ri­or Envi­ron­ment, and Urban Cri­sis (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2014) and Sub­na­ture: Archi­tec­ture’s Oth­er Envi­ron­ments (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 2009), and he edit­ed of the Ter­ri­to­ry” issue of AD Jour­nal (2010) and Big and Green (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 2003). His essays have been pub­lished in jour­nals such as AA Files, Cab­i­net, Grey Room, Log, Quaderns, and Thresh­olds, as well as a wide range of mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers, blogs, and books. His cura­to­r­i­al and exper­i­men­tal his­tor­i­cal work has been staged at the Muse­um of the City of New York, the Nation­al Build­ing Muse­um, the Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Archi­tec­ture Gallery, the Toron­to Free Gallery, and the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Archi­tec­ture, among oth­er venues. Gis­sen is cur­rent­ly an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts. Email: dgissen@​cca.​edu

Adri­an Johns is the author of The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowl­edge in the Mak­ing (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1998), Pira­cy: The Intel­lec­tu­al Prop­er­ty Wars from Guten­berg to Gates (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2009), and Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Mak­ing of the Infor­ma­tion Age (W. W. Nor­ton & Co, 2011). He has been teach­ing and writ­ing about the his­to­ries of print, infor­ma­tion, and sci­ence since the ear­ly 1990s. Edu­cat­ed at Cam­bridge, Johns has taught at Cal­tech; the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego; and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where he is cur­rent­ly Allan Grant Maclear Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry. He has received awards from the Guggen­heim Foun­da­tion, the ACLS, and oth­er dis­tin­guished bod­ies. Johns is now at work on two books, the first a his­to­ry of the polic­ing of infor­ma­tion and the sec­ond a new account of the sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion in ear­ly mod­ern Europe. Email: johns@​uchicago.​edu

Her­bert Marder is a poet, painter, and emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and rhetoric. He is the author of Fem­i­nism and Art: A Study of Vir­ginia Woolf (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1968) and The Mea­sure of Life: Vir­ginia Woolf’s Last Years (Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000). In 1970, Marder and his wife, singer Nor­ma Marder, co-found­ed the New Ver­bal Work­shop, an exper­i­men­tal ensem­ble con­ceived as a plat­form for explor­ing speech­mu­sic.” For more than a decade, the New Ver­bal Work­shop brought togeth­er an evolv­ing per­son­nel of trained per­form­ers and ama­teurs, who devel­oped a reper­toire of orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions through col­lec­tive impro­vi­sa­tion. The ensem­ble also per­formed exper­i­men­tal music by dis­tin­guished con­tem­po­rary com­posers Ken­neth Gaburo and Ben John­ston. Email: marder@​illinois.​edu