Signs and Wonders, by Delia Falconer

Readers may remember that I featured the author Delia Falconer and her new book of essays Signs and Wonders after the Melbourne Writers Festival was cancelled, alerting you to the book’s forthcoming release.  What I didn’t know then was that Signs and Wonders is a stunning book, and it is is going to walk off the shelves when it’s released in October so if you don’t want to miss out, best to pre-order a copy now.   I don’t like to promote FOMO but booksellers are already warning us about both shortages of Christmas stock and expected delivery delays due to pressure on Australia Post because of the explosion in online sales.  Signs and Wonders is exactly the kind of book that’s a perfect Christmas present for the hard-to-please, so don’t be disappointed… There are thirteen essays but it will come as no surprise that I opted to read ‘The Disappearing Paragraph’ first. This fascinating essay explores the impact on thinking of the way print has been altered in the age of screens.  It begins like this: A new breath.  A macro-punctuation mark.  A flash of lightning showing the landscape from a different aspect.  A collection of sentences with a unity of purpose.  A new neighbourhood made up of ‘streets’ of sentences.  These are some of the ways writers have described the work of the paragraph.  And yet, among the many unsettling phenomena of our age, I have noticed that paragraphs have been disappearing — at least paragraphs as I once knew them.  This may not amount to much amid the greater unravelling of our world but it is a significant disturbance within my own small literary ecotone.  (p.155) Falconer learned to type as I did, on a typewriter, (though hers was electric, and the one at the State Film Centre where I worked, was not. ) But before that, as I did, she had absorbed the small visual rhythms of paragraphing by reading everything that came my way as a child.  (For me, my grade 6 teacher Mrs Sheedy who was a stickler for writing conventions,  reinforced the message with a red pen.) But now paragraphs are often not separated by the conventional indent, but by a double-line space.  You see it here in this and all my reviews but it’s also emerging in books.  When I inspect my current TBR of books for review, three of the seven use double-line spaces.  The publishers aren’t consistent: Emily Bitto’s Wild Abandon (A&U) has double-line spaces but also from A&U, Nellie, the life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba by Robert Wainwright, doesn’t. Upswell publications The Dogs by John Hughes and Belinda Probert’s Imaginative Possession have double-line spaces, but Monique Truong’s The Sweetest Fruits has conventional indents.  So does Transit Lounge’s The One that Got Away, Travelling in the Time of Covid by Ken Haley, as does The Dancer by Evelyn Juers from Giramondo.  And even Delia’s own book isn’t consistent with itself: ‘Terror from the Air: Fire Diary 2019-20′ has double-line spaces, but ‘The Opposite of Glamour‘ has conventional indents.  What’s going on? Does it matter? Mainz Psalter detail, 1457 Gutenberg The conventional indent came into use with the printing press: …printers developed the convention — as it has come down to us — of beginning paragraphs on a new line, leaving an indent space for illustrators to fill with an ornament or illuminated capital.  When these embellishments were abandoned, the space remained: a little shelf for the eye and mind to get a purchase on, before the new paragraph began. Falconer’s delicate sense of humour can be seen in her thoughts about the Victorian paragraph: Perhaps no one loved paragraphs as much as the Victorians, who built their long, cadenced sentences into these substantial units of thought, which built in turn into chapters, so that when you look at the dense pages of their novels they seem to bear all the purpose and momentum of an empire.  Their paragraphs were like their thick-legged chairs or large shiny jardinières; they furnished a book so that it felt comfortingly solid. (p.158) And we who went to school in the 20th century enjoyed this inheritance, recognising paragraphs as ‘natural’ markers of the flows of thought. The double-line space between paragraphs, Falconer tells us, creates a significant interruption in the longer flow of a section.  So what’s happening when the brain registers a more liberal use of spacing, which puts a line of empty page between each paragraph? It’s one thing when it happens in poetry, but what about in novels?  It was extravagant, expressive and irregular in 1976 when Michael Ondaatje used it in Coming Through Slaughter (the story of New Orleans cornet player Buddy Bolden), because it announced visually that these were glimpses as curated and partial as the photographer Belloq’s portraits of Storyville sex workers, which also feature in the novel.  Most thrilling of all, Ondaatje would sometimes even throw a single-line riff — like Bolden’s loud trumpet blasts as he went mad during a 1907 jazz parade — across the middle of

Signs and Wonders, by Delia Falconer

Readers may remember that I featured the author Delia Falconer and her new book of essays Signs and Wonders after the Melbourne Writers Festival was cancelled, alerting you to the book’s forthcoming release.  What I didn’t know then was that Signs and Wonders is a stunning book, and it is is going to walk off the shelves when it’s released in October so if you don’t want to miss out, best to pre-order a copy now.   I don’t like to promote FOMO but booksellers are already warning us about both shortages of Christmas stock and expected delivery delays due to pressure on Australia Post because of the explosion in online sales.  Signs and Wonders is exactly the kind of book that’s a perfect Christmas present for the hard-to-please, so don’t be disappointed…

There are thirteen essays but it will come as no surprise that I opted to read ‘The Disappearing Paragraph’ first. This fascinating essay explores the impact on thinking of the way print has been altered in the age of screens.  It begins like this:

A new breath.  A macro-punctuation mark.  A flash of lightning showing the landscape from a different aspect.  A collection of sentences with a unity of purpose.  A new neighbourhood made up of ‘streets’ of sentences.  These are some of the ways writers have described the work of the paragraph.  And yet, among the many unsettling phenomena of our age, I have noticed that paragraphs have been disappearing — at least paragraphs as I once knew them.  This may not amount to much amid the greater unravelling of our world but it is a significant disturbance within my own small literary ecotone.  (p.155)

Falconer learned to type as I did, on a typewriter, (though hers was electric, and the one at the State Film Centre where I worked, was not. ) But before that, as I did, she had absorbed the small visual rhythms of paragraphing by reading everything that came my way as a child.  (For me, my grade 6 teacher Mrs Sheedy who was a stickler for writing conventions,  reinforced the message with a red pen.) But now paragraphs are often not separated by the conventional indent, but by a double-line space.  You see it here in this and all my reviews but it’s also emerging in books.  When I inspect my current TBR of books for review, three of the seven use double-line spaces.  The publishers aren’t consistent: Emily Bitto’s Wild Abandon (A&U) has double-line spaces but also from A&U, Nellie, the life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba by Robert Wainwright, doesn’t. Upswell publications The Dogs by John Hughes and Belinda Probert’s Imaginative Possession have double-line spaces, but Monique Truong’s The Sweetest Fruits has conventional indents.  So does Transit Lounge’s The One that Got Away, Travelling in the Time of Covid by Ken Haley, as does The Dancer by Evelyn Juers from Giramondo.  And even Delia’s own book isn’t consistent with itself: ‘Terror from the Air: Fire Diary 2019-20′ has double-line spaces, but ‘The Opposite of Glamour‘ has conventional indents.  What’s going on?

Does it matter?

Mainz Psalter detail, 1457 Gutenberg

The conventional indent came into use with the printing press:

…printers developed the convention — as it has come down to us — of beginning paragraphs on a new line, leaving an indent space for illustrators to fill with an ornament or illuminated capital.  When these embellishments were abandoned, the space remained: a little shelf for the eye and mind to get a purchase on, before the new paragraph began.

Falconer’s delicate sense of humour can be seen in her thoughts about the Victorian paragraph:

Perhaps no one loved paragraphs as much as the Victorians, who built their long, cadenced sentences into these substantial units of thought, which built in turn into chapters, so that when you look at the dense pages of their novels they seem to bear all the purpose and momentum of an empire.  Their paragraphs were like their thick-legged chairs or large shiny jardinières; they furnished a book so that it felt comfortingly solid. (p.158)

And we who went to school in the 20th century enjoyed this inheritance, recognising paragraphs as ‘natural’ markers of the flows of thought.

The double-line space between paragraphs, Falconer tells us, creates a significant interruption in the longer flow of a section.  So what’s happening when the brain registers a more liberal use of spacing, which puts a line of empty page between each paragraph? It’s one thing when it happens in poetry, but what about in novels?  It was extravagant, expressive and irregular in 1976 when Michael Ondaatje used it in Coming Through Slaughter (the story of New Orleans cornet player Buddy Bolden), because it announced visually that these were glimpses as curated and partial as the photographer Belloq’s portraits of Storyville sex workers, which also feature in the novel. 

Most thrilling of all, Ondaatje would sometimes even throw a single-line riff — like Bolden’s loud trumpet blasts as he went mad during a 1907 jazz parade — across the middle of a blank page.  (p.162)

But now, says Falconer, and my sense is that she’s right, what was innovative has become routine.  The double-line break is not unusual any more.

I’m seeing this shift to systematically placing double-line spaces between paragraphs so often in novels and essays now that it’s made me wonder: what if it’s crept up unnoticed in literary prose like the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?  Or, to cast about for another metaphor, what if the old internal structures of writing we are used to are like a sea creature’s shell, giving shape to the soft creature inside them; and those inner partitions, under some unseen pressure akin to the rise of acids in seawater, have been quietly dissolving and rearranging themselves?  Or what if — to take the more positive views — we’ve been evolving as readers to no longer require runs of indented paragraphs that thread themselves, one after another, into arguments or long sections? (p.163)

It’s hard to know what effect these text blocks have, but I’ve read some research by neuroscientists that shows different patterns of thought are emerging and, more worryingly, there are lower levels of comprehension of text on screen rather than in print.  I don’t remember if they controlled for different layouts and arrangements of text, but I do remember that they concluded that young people reading on screen are less able to process longer pieces of text, as in, say, the Victorian novel or medical textbooks.

I’ve focussed on this one essay to give you some idea of the delights in store.  Others that were utterly absorbing were ‘Coal: An Unnatural History’; ‘Terror from the Air: Fire Diary 2019-20’; ‘The Opposite of Glamour’; and ‘Good Neighbours’ which, in telling the story of the seal that made its home on the beach in an inner city suburb of Sydney, ranges far and wide as it traverses the controversy over how best to care for it.  I was surprised by the hostility I felt toward local self-appointed wildlife experts and by their confidence that they knew what was best for this animal they were claiming as a neighbour, she writes, and I found myself nodding in agreement at I sometimes wonder if there are more ‘wild’ animals circulating in these multiplying shared videos than there are in the world off-screen.  

I love the way these essays are a window into the thoughts of a wise and thoughtful person, and the links between literature and current natural environment issues is brilliant, as for instance when Falconer links the worldwide decline of oysters with John Steinbeck’s metaphor of the flatworm in Cannery Row.  But Falconer is under no illusions about the power of the pen to change things.

The fact is that for every book concerned with the fate of the world, there are a hundred, a thousand, films and books and ‘lifestyle’ television programs, and advertisements, and magazines offering a parallel world of infinite abundance.  In this parallel universe, time exists on a different scale.  Nothing is permanent, not even ruin, because things can always be ‘made over’ — properties flipped, ugly ducklings zhoozhed, dream homes located somewhere.  In glamour’s alternate reality, surfaces always gleam.  Decisions are never moral, but only ever aesthetic.  Nothing is unobtainable, if you can pay enough.  Meanwhile, those who attain glamour are ‘winners’, above the ruck in their gilded sphere, while those who don’t are ‘losers’. In this compelling fantasy version of our planet, long-term catastrophic damage is invisible, hidden by perpetual motion and glossy fluidity.

Glamour, I think, may be our most powerful and fatal fiction, the one that kills us all. (p.143)

The only essays I haven’t read are ‘Coronavirus Time: Diary’ and ‘Covid Walking: Diary.’ Like everyone else in the entire world, I have my own experience of the pandemic, and when I read, I just don’t want to think about it at all.  It’s my Time Out.

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You can pre-order the book from Readings and other good bookstores.  You can also register at Readings to hear Delia talk about Signs and Wonders, online.  (I’ve already booked in.)  A big bouquet to Readings for the wealth of online events they are supporting — don’t wait for Love Your Bookshop Day in October — you can show your thanks and support to them and other indie bookstores doing it tough in Lockdown by buying your books from them: support Australian indie booksellers!

Author: Delia Falconer
Title: Signs and Wonders, Dispatches from a time of beauty and loss
Publisher: Scribner (Simon and Schuster), 2021
ISBN: 9781760857820 (pbk., 290 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of Scribner