One thing that I take for granted, and I’m sure most people do, is the physical structure of a book. A book commonly consists of these features: chapters that vary in length, reads left to right, and you turn the pages in an orderly manner. What ultimately matters is the story itself. Now, let’s consider if we read the book that didn’t fall under the above parameters. Would that change how we interact with the book and critically engage us on a whole new level? Here’s my “best of” list of books that do just that.
First up we have Sabine’s Notebook, which is the sequel to Griffin & Sabine. In the first book, Griffin’s imaginary love has seemingly come to life and is writing letters and postcards and sending them to him. They begin a correspondence unlike any other. At the end of that book Sabine is about to meet Griffin. Alas though, in the continuation, Griffin becomes nervous and flees just as Sabine is about to arrive. They still profess their love for one another and continue their bizarre communication. The pages of the letters are a thicker, glossier quality than regular book pages. On the right side of the page is either a picture of the postcard or envelope from either Griffin or Sabine. On the left side of the page is the other side of the postcard or an actual envelope attached to the page. The envelopes are not sealed. The reader must remove the letter from the envelope and read it to further the story. Astounding.
Figure 1 Revealing more of the story in Sabine’s Notebook
Not only does this surreal story between Griffin and Sabine captivate us, but the reader is also drawn in by the act of physically getting involved in the story. The intimacy between Griffin and Sabine become shared, doubly so. There are plenty of novels that are epistolary, ones that are written as a series of documents that consist of letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, etc. But Sabine’s Notebook is unlike any other. The postcards and envelopes are rich with beautiful and unreal imagery. In one postcard that Sabine sends to Griffin, she remarks on the picture “The Sumerian bear on the front is meant be a hostility symbol. But it looks melancholy to me,” (Bantock, 16).
Sabine wisely chose this postcard because in Griffin’s earlier letter, his words evoke a dark mood, hostile. It matters not if which is mimicking first, art or life. This was a captivating, short read. The premise of this book is wild and alluring. The penmanship of the two is paramount. Griffin’s print is stable, clear whereas Sabine’s cursive has more flourish and fanciful swirls.
Imagine a book that isn’t nestled between two covers. How would that work? Anne Carson’s Nox proves how a book might not be a page turner. The novel comes in a box, and upon opening it the pages are connected a la accordion style. The reader can hold it up high and literally see a story stretch before their eyes. I’d surmise the pages reach as high as a two-story building.
Figure 2 Nox stretches the imagination
Each accordion page is a piece of art as Carson uses newspaper clippings, torn photographs, and bits of artwork in the layout. Some unique features include indented pages from a sharp object, and pencil scribbles as opposed to traditional typeset. It is an exact reproduction of what Carson made, so if she used staples to adhere the artwork, the reproduction will have the staple seen on the other side.
Carson’s story is about the life and death of her brother. Michael died in 2000, and Anne didn’t find out the news until weeks later since his widow couldn’t find her phone number. Although Anne and Michael hadn’t talked frequently, his death affected her greatly for her “…to construct a notebook of memories, or, as she puts it, ‘an epitaph.’” (O’Rourke) What makes this different from Griffin and Sabine’s correspondence is that Carson is using real items that connect her to her brother. Nox is non-fiction and rightly so as we can see the painstaking care Carson has chosen to tell the story. There’s no even edges, how she sticks the various cut-outs to the pages could very well represent how we cope with death – fragmented, unsure, and haphazardly. Amidst the chaos, this truly is something beautiful as we literally unfold a tale of a sister’s love for her brother.
There have been books that have gone through rewrites and edits that constitute an updated version of the original. That is, the content of the book changes over time. Textbooks for educational purposes fall under this category too. They constantly need updating as facts become clearer or technology has updated to keep up with today’s demands. An abridged book is shortened and unabridged is the original state which is of course longer. One example is Stephen King’s The Stand. One Goodreads reader summed up his take on both versions nicely:
“I’ve only read the unabridged version. I would have to say, though, that it’s better because there’s something like 400 pages restored in it. I can’t imagine this book without them,” (Jason, Goodreads.com).
Publishers choose the best method to market the book and I hope the author has a say in the matter, especially if they’re alive. What if you could publish a book, but have two different versions at the same time?
For Dictionary of the Khazars, A Lexicon Novel by Milord Pavic, the bottom of the cover reads, “This is the FEMALE EDITION of the Dictionary. The MALE edition is almost identical. But NOT quite. Be warned that ONE PARAGRAPH is crucially different. The choice is yours.” (Pavic, cover). I’m curious – how smart it is to reveal something like this right away?
Figure 3 Dictionary of the Khazars
One way is to just put MALE version and FEMALE version on different copies. Let readers discover for themselves that there’s a difference. Then again, telling people right away that there are two differences can bring up the fervor even more. Also, some might find the MALE and FEMALE versions very sexist, and even misleading. There are those who don’t identify with either gender and might feel left out or slighted. Is there enough draw to make the reader read the whole book again just to discern one different paragraph? This book was written in 1988 before the Internet, and easy access to spoilers, was prevalent. Did libraries stock both copies and did bookstores sell both? The book is dreamy with plot elements such as books printed with poison ink, three wise men, suicide by mirrors, and more. This book is still a typical book, but with two versions released at the same time, I find that extremely fascinating as the reader is engaged with a choice on how to read the book. What makes one person choose one version over the other?
In that book the premise of rereading it again can be novel but it is just one paragraph that’s different. What if you literally could read a book twice in a row and it’s not the same. It is possible, and in Only Revolutions Mark Z. Danielewski proves that. The reader can read the book either way. There’s no rhyme or reason which to pick to start. When you proceed one way, the narrative is in large font, all the O’s are in gold, and as you near the end the font becomes smaller. Once done, turn the book upside down, and you read it again but from a different perspective with yet again large font to smaller font however the O’s are now in green.
Figure 4 Only Revolutions is revolutionary
The narrative might be confusing as it reads like mad poetry with numerous asides that are like footnotes but not numerated. What might seem poetic to one reader could also be seen as stream of consciousness to another. On every page the top half has words the right side up and the bottom half has upside down words. The book is chaotic with two characters that are eternal teenagers who travel through time witnessing pivotal points in American history.
The appeal of these different books can engage readers on a variety of levels – physically, critically, socially, artistically. In discussion groups at libraries, I can see patrons interacting with the book “oohing” and “aahing” over interpretations and how to touch and manipulate. Books are also artwork, waiting to be admired and discussed to no end. A great idea would go through weeded books and literally turn them into pieces of art. Let patrons discover a new way to tell a story. It’s beautiful when people carve out the pages and tell a new story. It’s important to break the mold every on and then, and it’s great to know that books do that, and will continue to do so.
Tom Malinowski is Branch Librarian at Library! Cole and Ustick (Boise Public Library)
Bantock, N. (1992). Sabine’s notebook: In which the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin & Sabine continues. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Carson, A., & Catullus, G. V. (2010). Nox. New York: New Directions.
Danielewski, M. Z. (2006). Only revolutions. New York: Pantheon Books.
Jason. Horror Aficionados. Goodreads, 29 June 2011. Web. 27 July 2013.
O’Rourke, M. (2010, July 12). The unfolding. The New Yorker, 86(20), 82.
Pavić, M. (1988). Dictionary of the Khazars: A lexicon novel in 100,000 words. New York: Knopf.