It’s so easy to take our cultural forms for granted. We get so used to their particulars that we forget there is nothing inviolate about them. Movies can have sad endings, classical music can turn atonal and novelists can get self-referential. Such transgressions are the mark of cultural progress. (Or decadence, depending on your aesthetic preferences. Me? I like Jane Austen and Italo Calvino.)
But I’ve always assumed that there was only one way to write a letter, that the epistle was the sturdiest of cultural forms. But I was wrong. It turns out that, back in the 19th century, people engaged in cross-writing. It was a way of saving paper. Look, for instance, at this letter written by Henry James (I stole the image from a wonderful article in Slate by Megan Marshall):
I just wasted twenty minutes trying to figure out what the hell James was writing. I’ve given up. I think the part of my brain that decodes such scribble has completely atrophied. I suppose this is a natural consequence of spending my life in front a computer: human handwriting, especially when it’s written in layers, has become much, much harder to understand. Perhaps this paper from the new Neuroimage can help me understand what’s going on:
Reading normal and degraded words: Contribution of the dorsal and ventral visual pathways.
Cohen L, Dehaene S, Vinckier F, Jobert A, Montavont A.
Fast, parallel word recognition, in expert readers, relies on sectors of the left ventral occipito-temporal pathway collectively known as the visual word form area. This expertise is thought to arise from perceptual learning mechanisms that extract informative features from the input strings. The perceptual expertise hypothesis leads to two predictions: (1) parallel word recognition, based on the ventral visual system, should be limited to words displayed in a familiar format (foveal horizontal words with normally spaced letters); (2) words displayed in formats outside this field of expertise should be read serially, under supervision of dorsal parietal attention systems. We presented adult readers with words that were progressively degraded in three different ways (word rotation, letter spacing, and displacement to the visual periphery). Behaviorally, we identified degradation thresholds above which reading difficulty increased non-linearly, with the concomitant emergence of a word length effect on reading latencies reflecting serial reading strategies. fMRI activations were correlated with reading difficulty in bilateral occipito-temporal and parietal regions, reflecting the strategies required to identify degraded words. A core region of the intraparietal cortex was engaged in all modes of degradation. Furthermore, in the ventral pathway, word degradation led to an amplification of activation in the posterior visual word form area, at a level thought to encode single letters. We also found an effect of word length restricted to highly degraded words in bilateral occipitoparietal regions. Those results clarify when and how the ventral parallel visual word form system needs to be supplemented by the deployment of dorsal serial reading strategies.
In other words, my dorsal reading system has gone to shit.