Sunday, December 05, 2010

Now you are aware of me!: A haphazard survey of recent books-as-objects

(Parts I and II)
A masterpiece of the book-as-object genre: the board-book version of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Image found here.

At the beginning of the film Objectified, which I posted on last month, a designer talks about how his idea for Oxo's vegetable peelers came to him. He mentions that a relative of his, who loved to cook, found it hard to grip her kitchen utensils for extended periods because of her arthritis. After playing around with various handle designs, he took an old outsized handlebar grip from a kid's bicycle and stuck it over the handle of his relative's peeler, and the rest is kitchen-utensil history. He then said something very interesting: that new designs initially seek to accommodate extreme situations--not the needs of the masses, but of special audiences and/or specialized needs. Yet, paradoxically, once we masses get our hands on an Oxo or Oxo-inspired peeler, it makes us wonder about those peelers with stamped-metal handles that our parents used and/or made us use--specifically, it makes us wonder if our forebears were masochists.

It's within the context of Objectified's observation about design that I've been thinking about these posts on the book-as-object, especially given the twin facts that of late there's been a fair amount of speculation about the future of books yet, on the other hand, that books whose physical design is meant to be considered as part of the making of meaning are appearing with some regularity. It occurs to me that perhaps these writers in some sense want to re-introduce us to books via those designs. Here's what they seem to be implying through their work: if a physical book is only a passive delivery system for a text, then we might as well read that same text off a screen. But if the book-as-device in some way contributes to or enhances not just reading a text but the making of that text's meaning, then maybe books won't disappear.

But then again, I was reminded recently that children's books haven't forgotten that reading for kids is a visual and tactile experience as much as it is an intellectual one. A couple of days ago by the front entrance at Barnes & Noble, I saw displayed copies of a children's book by Lane Smith called It's a Book. (Very short review: Cute--something like a re-writing of this--and the integrated page from an illustrated edition of Treasure Island is a nice surprise.) It's something of a meta-commentary on children's books' material attributes becoming part of the narrative, as with the Carle book pictured above (it was a favorite with my daughters when they were growing up; they loved to put their fingers in the holes as we counted all the things the caterpillar ate, and when at the end the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, I would flap the open book in imitation of that same butterfly: the book itself metamorphoses into the very object we had been told of via the book.

Well, okay: that book-flapping stuff was just Daddy being silly, back in the day.).

(Aside: I'm not sure just how pop-up books fit into this discussion. Their features require manipulation, of course, but the books themselves just need to be held open and their pages turned. For pop-up books, then, the book-as-book thus is a container, just as with more conventional texts. Or, at least, that's how they seem to me; I'm willing to listen to dissenting arguments.)

But though for adults there have been texts with adventurous typography and layouts ever since there have been texts, up to and including works of philosophy, it's not been till fairly recently that books have appeared in the mass market for grown-ups whose very materiality in some way(s) functions as part of the activity of meaning-making. These are very serious, even dark works, but the physical manipulation of the book in order to read it injects a sense of play into the reading experience--every reading experience is, in its essence, an act of imaginative play, the unifying of a collection of symbols and associating those symbols with things or ideas in the world to make meaning--that, precisely because having to do it is such an odd thing to have to do, should prompt us to ask, Why? What is gained here?

Below the fold is a fairly long-winded, arbitrary and incomplete survey (read: I know something about these) of books as objects, along with some pictures. Their more-frequent appearance--and, it must be said, their critical and financial success--give me hope that we'll see more books like these as writers attempt them and publishers are willing to print them. It is innovation at the margins that will help preserve all books, not just the stranger ones. We still have those awful metal-handle potato peelers, after all . . .

I am certain that other books of the sort I have been describing existed well before the 20th century, but the earliest I know of is Raymond Queneau's 1961 book,
Cent mille milliards de poèmes (One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems; image, and a description, found here). This book consists of ten sonnets, each of which follows not just the same rhyme scheme but whose lines all have the same rhyme sounds (that is, the first four lines of all the sonnets have an a b a b rhyme scheme, and all the a lines in all the poems will have the same sound) and each line of which is on its own strip of a page, thus making it possible to combine, say, any first line of a given poem with any combination of second lines, third lines, etc. from the other nine poems. Reading 24 hours a day, it would take a reader 200,000,000 years to read every possible combination (hence the title of the book). If you want a sense of how this all works, go here to see randomly-selected lines from the Poèmes; or, if you have about $100 lying around, buy a copy.

Here is an instance in which the book-as-object so disrupts that which we usually think of as "reading" that it's hard to say whether what one does with this book can be called reading. Though that means that for the vast majority of us such a book is fun to look at but is otherwise a curiosity, that's not a complaint. One way to think of the Poèmes is as something like a literalizing of the idea of the inexhaustible text, the idea that a given text can yield any number of possible meanings. But in a more accessible sense, we can say that the experience of the Poèmes is a concretizing of the idea that we never truly read any text in isolation, considering only the words on the page always and only in association with the other words on that page. The very act of being able to read is contingent on our experiences with words in other contexts, and with personal associations, too. In some sense, then, any reading of any text, in order to make sense of it, requires the piecing together of all of that and then telling ourselves that the result is "right there on the page." Reading as gathering, indeed.

These all are interesting ideas to have foregrounded by a book's physical design; but as anyone who has browsed a bookstore in the past fifty years can tell you, the shelves aren't exactly groaning with Cent mille milliards de poèmes wanna-bes and also-rans. It could be argued, though, that some books began to appear that play around with them on a smaller scale. One book that comes to mind is Argentinian novelist Julio Cortázar's 1963 novel Rayuela (English title: Hopscotch), with its instructions to the reader (image found here) on how to read its two sections (the first section is a more-or-less conventional narrative; the second section consists of other bits that, according to the author, can either be ignored by the reader "with a clean conscience" or be read in conjunction with the first section but in an (out-of-numerical-order) sequence indicated by Cortázar). Even more interesting: one of those ways of reading leads to a textual infinite loop: the book doesn't "end" once the reader closes the cover. In that sense, it is the the anti-Quixote.

(Rather than prattle on further about Cortázar here, I'll just refer the curious to an earlier post of mine and say again here that this fellow's books are well worth knowing.)

The next books I'd like to mention here are those in Nick Bantock's Griffin & Sabine trilogy (image found here). Bantock's trilogy is in the grand tradition of that earliest novel form in English, the epistolary novel. However, as the picture here indicates, Bantock doesn't merely reproduce the texts of the exchange between the titular characters, he reproduces the postcards and includes actual envelopes containing physical facsimiles of their letters. The tactile experience of opening the envelope and pulling out and unfolding its letter and then, when done, refolding and replacing it back in its envelope creates in the reader the powerful sensation that we're reading other people's private correspondence in a way no other epistolary novel does. Moreover, I'd argue that as the correspondence becomes stranger and more complicated, those tactile acts create an emotional investment in the reader that actually enhances the tension felt in the narrative in ways that more conventional page-turning cannot. Who among us, after all, has not felt dread or nervousness upon seeing envelopes from certain addresses, to the point of not wanting to open them? These books show up on the shelves of the big chain stores all the time; if you don't already know them, seek them out. They're quick reads, but they're also beautiful (they sometimes show up in the artbook sections of stores).

Still and all, these books and others like them did not seem to lead to wider experiments with incorporating books' materiality into meaning-making. Given that fact, the gamble Pantheon took in choosing to publish Mark Z. Danielewski's 2000 novel, House of Leaves, (image found here) was an enormous one--indeed, they very well might never have taken it on if Danielewski, according to this long but very informative interview, hadn't typeset it himself. But Pantheon's gamble has paid off splendidly in the form of both critical and financial success; that, combined with newer softwares that make typesetting and complicated layouts much easier, has led to the appearance of many novels that experiment with the layout of text (or, in House of Leaves' case, texts) on a page and the incorporation of various kinds of images and, to a lesser extent, books-as-objects. Just as one example, it's difficult to imagine a major house like Penguin publishing a book like Reif Larson's beautiful 2009 book The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet if not for the example of House of Leaves.

House of Leaves confronts you with its strangeness before you even open it. The "cover image" you see above is, well, not quite the cover: the black portion of the image is what you'd call the cover, but that multicolored strip on the right-hand side is actually a separate page--essentially, the first page of the novel, though it appears even before the blurb page--on which you'll see a collage of various objects and handwritten and typed and word-processed texts. The front cover, in other words, doesn't quite cover the pages of the book, thus being analogous to one of the book's crucial settings, a house in Virginia that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Opening the book just about anywhere, meanwhile--especially to its infamous Chapter IX--reveals the wide and wild variety of typographically-audacious pages that House of Leaves is known for. But for purposes of this post I'd like to look at two of its visually-simpler pages, pp. 440-441 (image found here; click on the image to enlarge it). As you perhaps can tell from the image, to read these two pages you must turn the book so that its left edge faces you and then read, line by line, from the new "bottom" of the page to the "top" of the facing page. The text, meanwhile, describes the character's ascension of a ladder. (To read the footnote on p. 441, then, you have to turn the book in the opposite direction.) So, while the words' layout evokes the climbing of a ladder, the fact of the book's being opened so that it is at its fullest length enhances our sense of the ladder's length as conveyed by the text. Well--as best it can, given that Navidson climbs this ladder for "hours and hours."

Despite moments like this and others in House of Leaves, it wasn't until his novel Only Revolutions appeared in 2006 that I became fully aware of how invested in the idea of the book as object Danielewski is. Its unusual textual layout (its parallel narratives begin at opposite ends of the book and are printed upside-down relative to each other--click on the image to enlarge it) require you to turn the book round and round in order to read each narrative; ruffle the pages with your thumb, and you'll see the page numbers in the circles orbit relative to each other; the hardback editions have two separate book ribbons to help you keep your place when reading each narrative; etc. This book, in other words, sometimes feels more constructed than written, to the point that some have found it emotionally chilly or wanting in terms of plot or character development.

I really admire this book's experimental bravery, but I will admit that its obsessiveness with, it seems, everything, from the things mentioned above to things like every page having exactly 360 words, can make reading Only Revolutions feel a bit odd for reasons quite apart from its adventurous language. (I say a little about that and about its American-ness here.) But then again, the book itself makes you aware of it in ways that even House of Leaves does not, let alone more conventional books. Anyway, Danielewski's obvious interest in thinking about books as more than empty vessels for texts inspired me to begin a discussion thread on that subject over at the Only Revolutions section of the MZD Forums.

This very odd book was also a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. That sort of recognition, along next month's Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer, about which Olafur Eliasson says it is "a book that remembers it actually has a body," bodes well, I think, not just for those of us who love books that experiment with their material attributes, but for those of us who love books, period. Just as with the gene pools of living things, the more diversity we see in books, the healthier and longer-lived all kinds of books will be.


R. Sherman said...

While reading this, I was reminded of the beautiful medieval codexes of stories and scripture, where the thing itself, i.e. "illuminated," was as important as preserving the words which were read.

I'll ponder this some more, but I've got a two hour drive ahead of me.


John B. said...

Thanks as always for dropping by and commenting, Randall.

I suppose I can trace my formal interest in this topic to grad school, when I took a course on what the instructor called "illuminated texts": books whose physical and visual ornaments didn't merely accompany the text but in some way shaped our understanding of that text. The cornerstone was Blake's books, for which he invented the means by which he produced them, but we pretty much surveyed the history of the book via these books, from the Book of Kells and the Tres Riches Heures all the way up to the 20th century. The highlight of the class was a trip up to the University of Texas' Humanities Research Center in Austin, where we saw a first edition of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, a copy of the Queneau book I mentioned in this post, and many other strange and beautiful things.

The medieval books you mention are worth many posts in themselves within this context. They are beautiful to look at, but they are more than pretty books. I mean, just look at the Book of Kells' "Chi roh" page: here and elsewhere in that book and in any number of other such books, the ornament is its own message, but not just in its ornateness but even in its size. In that class, we were looking at a medieval Bible illuminated in this manner and kept noting how the ornamented initial letters of the chapters weren't contained by the white space as the rest of the text was, and I suggested that perhaps there was some sort of evangelical message at work here, that the Gospel shouldn't be confined but spread beyond its "container": the walls of the Church, Europe, whatever. Also, of course, artistic expression has long been thought of as a form of worship; that idea certainly figures into these books, quite apart from whatever semiotic function(s) they perform. Who knows, really? But I think it's pretty clear that they do indeed signify in some way; their function is not merely, to borrow a phrase, to be seen and not heard.

Yammer, yammer. But thanks again for commenting, Randall.