Yesterday was the official first day of classes, but today was the first class for me this semester. My first year here, I wanted to take Printing I in the Book Arts program, but I didn’t yet know how to be persistent, and I never did. So I’m taking it now, in my last year at Alabama. This morning, the instructor talked to us about the history of type and fonts, and we all chatted a little about our experiences with fonts. I don’t have any experience with letterpress printing, so my own experiences are limited to my involvement with lit journals, and personal font choices for writing and submitting. A lot of the slides were familiar to me, though, because of my art history background, especially in manuscript illumination.
One of the slides showed the Phoenician alphabet, in a format similar to this:
That might even be the exact image. The point is, the names and shapes of these letters are closely related to the Hebrew alphabet, and I sat there reading them to myself and feeling a weird sense of belonging and I teared up a little. I don’t think, or I hope, anyone noticed.
I have some vague memories of learning how to write in English, but for me, learning Hebrew was a formative experience in terms of thinking about text and meaning. I had to practice so carefully how to make the right kind of curve, to distinguish between formal serifed Hebrew and sans serif cursive Hebrew. I had to do everything backwards, and so I thought about direction. In school, the rabbis touched the letters as they read them, and I learned how to read through the Chumash as a segmented object. We studied the numerical value of the alphabet and the way the yud is actually present in every letter.
I’ve lost pretty much any fluency I once had, but that mode of thinking about text has stayed with me, though it’s only in the past few years that I’ve made the connection between my interest in form and my experience with language. For me, words are not just a shortcut to meaning or understanding. The shape and space of those words are just as important as the dictionary definition. In conversations about poetry, I am continually surprised by readers for whom every use of space is some kind of symbolic gesture that the reader must puzzle through. I try very hard to appreciate that kind of reader and/or writer, but my brain just doesn’t work that way, and I don’t care to force it to.
Because today was also the last first day of school for me, after my last long summer break, I’m also thinking now about life after academia. Did I wait too long to take this class? Would I be happy if I kept studying in a field more closely related to the visual arts? Right now, I’m dreaming of working for a contemporary art museum. B and I recently had a conversation about spiritual experiences, because neither one of us is particularly religious, and for me the two closest things to that kind of feeling are writing and being in a museum. I’m afraid that when I leave academia, I’ll lose my access to the visual art community. I don’t have anything meaningful or insightful to say about that. I wish I did.