Non-book text

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), a plane flies over post-World War One London and seems to write letters in the sky:

Dropping dead down the aeroplane soared straight up, curved in a loop, raced, sank, rose, and whatever it did, wherever it went, out fluttered behind it a thick ruffled bar of white smoke which curled and wreathed upon the sky in letters. But what letters? A C was it? an E, then an L? Only for a moment did they lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed out up in the sky, and the aeroplane shot further away and again, in a fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?

We’re inclined to associate text with books, or maybe newspapers or magazines, but to walk through a city means to be exposed to a torrent of non-bookish text, of text with no relationship to the codex, text that looms out at us from all sides, on all surfaces, and continually. What does reading mean in this environment? Is it different from noticing, or seeing? Russian historian Simon Franklin uses the term ‘graphosphere’ to describe all the text that comes at us as we move through the world.1 As Franklin writes:

The ‘graphosphere’ … denotes the totality of graphic devices used to record, store, display, and disseminate messages and information, and the social and cultural spaces in which they figure.

As an experiment in the graphosphere, I tried to notice all the text that came at me during the first hour of Monday: digital radio displays, car number plates, books that arrived in the post.

There were very few moments when I was not reading something: it was a challenge to find a view that didn’t contain text. Everything seemed to have the potential to become a surface for language: doors; windows; trees; tarmac; brick walls; cars; people; the sky. I was often reading several pieces of text at the same time: a bus shelter with a poster glued to the glass through which I read the writing on the road. Writing on cars or bikes or people was itself on the move, driving and cycling and walking around. Commands and proscriptions appeared from all directions: the dominant construction was the warning. The exceptional experience of reading a book (thousands of words gathered and held in one place; carried around and not suddenly presenting itself from left, right, above, or below) takes place amid these near-constant, staccato encounters with text.


Simon Franklin, The Russian Graphosphere, 1450-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 2019).