Friday, September 9, 2011

Chesterton on the Pull Quote

Things that are really to be read have to be printed for modern maen exactly as they used to be printed for babies. They have to be printed in very plain capital letters; and anything that is to be noticed at all has to be printed very large. Now, this is not what people who really know how to read would ever describe as the pleasure of Reading. It might perhaps be compared in some ways to the modern science of signalling. But it is not knowing how to read connected and cultivated prose, giving to larger and lesser things their due weight in the whole balance of the composition. This is rather an evidence that people are really reading less and less; receding, as it were, further and further from the distant lights of literacy, so that only the very largest signals or widest flashes can read them.

"On Reading, and Not Being Able To", The Illustrated London News, December 8, 1928

Pull quotes, in case you don't know (and why should you?) are the snippets from an article that are printed in larger type to arrest the browsing eye. You know the sort of thing; an article about alcoholism will have the sentence "I sold my daughter's dollies for drink money" in huge black type, tucked between columns of ordinary-sized text. It isn't exactly what Chesterton was writing about-- he was writing about dramatic but trivial excerpts from articles being used for the headline-- but I think it's the same territory.

This kind of thing has spread from newspaper and magazines articles into the world at large. Even museums and exhbitions are now afflicted. Remember when museums used to be full of glass cases, tastefully and unobstrusively labelled? Now we have huge printed wall-length panels, with text superimposed over enormous pictures-- and, of course, dramatic and "punchy" pull-quotes. There is a Beckett "exhibition" (though nothing is exhibited except these panels, and a drawing) in my own library that features such pull-quotes, wrenched out of any context, set against a background of photos of Beckett and the Ireland of his time. The WB Yeats exhibition recently on show in Dublin's National Library, though excelennt in many ways, featured the same blunderbuss techniques.

Presentation, presentation, presentation. That is the catch-cry of the age. And what does it lead to? Everybody screaming louder to be heard over the cacophony. "Shock" advertisements about drugs or road safety that become more and more lurid as we grow more and more blasé about them. Political parties deciding they need to market their policies, and finally reaching the stage where marketing replaces policies. Charities breeding compassion-fatigue by a relentless bombardment of gimmicky proposals ("buy this village a goat!") and "hard-hitting" imagery that hardly makes us blink any more. Viral marketing campaigns that breed a hundred more viral marketing campaigns. Letter-boxes full of junk mail, inboxes full of spam, and even the serenity of the museum and the gallery broken by screaming pull quotes.

As always, Chesterton saw it coming long ago...

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