Reading an elegant memoir this week, I became annoyed with the dingbats the publisher inserted in the author’s line breaks, the white spaces he used as transitions between sections in chapters. A dingbat, in this case a set of three square blocks, is “an ornamental piece of type for borders, separators, decorations,” says Dictionary.com. That’s the third definition—the first is “an eccentric, silly, or empty-headed person” and the second is “dingus,” a “gadget, device, or object whose name is unknown or forgotten.”
Amen. The dumb things arose in the age of hot lead type, an era of imprecise technology and poor communication, to safeguard authors’ intentional white space from harried printers in the back shop. Now dingbats traduce this important authorial decision. Clearly they’ve outlived whatever usefulness they possessed, something evolution tried, like tailfins on Cadillacs, that was excessive, grew vestigial, and faded. Except of course in newspapers, where dingbats are used to insult normal readers by shouting that a mistake isn’t being made.
In short, dingbats are moronic. And yet some book publishers still reflexively put the damn things in whenever a writer hits an extra return and pauses for breath. Tradition is at work, but mindlessly, which is my real beef. Melville used only four line breaks, by my count, in all of Moby-Dick, and the novel’s printer used five bristling asterisks in each break.
With the poetic influence of lyric essays growing, even many traditional writers are using white space to set up a mere line or two—and dingbats bracketing such liminal space are grotesque. (Somehow poets survive without dingbats after every stanza.) Dingbats deface the text and the writer’s intent to use white space as a resonant pause full of meaning and implied narrative. The white space is counterpoint, the ball hanging in the clear air before the racket’s downward thwock.
I’m supportive of dingbats used to separate sections in block-style paragraph format where most white space is simply a paragraph indicator, as on this blog, and dingbats (or numerals) can telegraph a more significant transition. Like so:
* * * * *
There, my jihad against dingbats is launched. Admittedly a number of publishers already do without them. But I expect slow dingbat extirpation because design is a realm that authors are ignorant of, or which they cede, and publishers refrain from soliciting design preferences from writers.