In defense of italics

I first encountered this tweet while I was reading Johanna Sinisalo's wonderful The Core of the Sun:

And while I guess I've never opened up a novel and been excited about the presence of italics, I've certainly never been disappointed to see italics, either. The Core of the Sun features quite a few passages in italics — the book is made up of a collage of letters and dictionary entries and other odds and ends — and it works really well; the italics signify difference in a visual shorthand that's not quite as jarring as, say, switching to a different font.

And when I see italics, I automatically read the passage differently than I would otherwise. I've never tried to put this into words before, but I guess to me, italicized passages read as tough they're spoken in a whisper. Those passages seem more reflective to me, a little more intimate; maybe this just stems from the way I lean forward to read italics a little bit more carefully than I do "normal" text.

Anyway, the tweet reminds me of a story from my bookselling days. A customer came to me looking for a recommendation. She wanted a family story set in small-town America, something funny and appealing and well-written. The novel that fit every aspect of her description had just come out in paperback, and so I handed it to her: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo.

I described the story to her, and she started to get very excited about it. But then she opened the book and flipped to the first few pages and the smile fell off her face. She clapped the book shut and thrust it back into my hands.

"Italics," she said, by way of explanation. "I don't read italics."

It's true that Empire Falls opens (and closes) with a long passage in italics, but those passages make up something like one or two percent of the entire book. I suppose I felt a little annoyed at her for passing up a great novel for such a superficial reason, but mostly I felt bad for her. She was denying herself the reading experience that she most wanted and needed at that time in her life just because of a stylistic peccadillo. It's like meeting the love of your life and deciding you don't want anything to do with him because he's wearing a green t-shirt. What a waste.