Book design has so many traditionally accepted formats that are taken for granted. There are standard rules for setting margins, line spacing, font, sentence structure, page layout, font allignment, image inclusion and so much more. We are so attuned to these practices that it really stands out when some starts breaking the rules.
But that’s the tricky part. In order to break the rules, you have to know what the rules are. There are three examples that immediately come to mind when I think of books that incorporate non-traditional page layouts and/or typesetting. Some work better than others. Let’s take a look.
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities
Invisible Cities doesn’t sway too far outside the norm when it comes to the layout and formatting of the page. Instead, Calvino breaks the rules by exploring an atypical series of chapter and section titles, where chapters and sections are not organized chronologically, but by theme, and the ordering of these themes is based on a mathematical pattern rather than an arbitrary Chapter 1, 2, 3 and so on.
While the content of the book is highly stylized and artistically fluid, each section is fitted with a rigid structure of:
- A2 B1
- A3 B2 C1
- A4 B3 C2 D1
- A5 B4 C3 D2 E1
- B5 C4 D3 E2 F1
- C5 D4 E3 F2 G1
- D5 E4 F3 G2 H1
And so on.
This works, especially given the nature of Calvino’s work because despite a shared theme, the stories contained within don’t follow a traditional story format. If not for the highly planned-out table of contents, a reader could read the various descriptions, stories and sections in whatever order they please and still get lost in the journey of the book, however, the table of contents and the mathematical structure act as a sort of architecture to guide the reader through the tangled web of concrete, plumbing and beams that is the city of this book. The unorthodox arrangement gives the reader a sense of purpose in the text, which Calvino has used to cleverley set the reader up to search for and discover that purpose. Each reader discovers their own – led on by that mathematical road map.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Here, the author uses typesetting and page layout as a visual representation of emotion. While the ordering of the table of contents and the journey of the narrative follows a more typical format (albiet a non-chronological one), the individual pages and the formatting of the print of those pages are free to morph and change.
Outburts of emotion or anxiety-ridden revelations have the text running into itself, becoming more and more compressed and interwoven until it reaches a point where the pages become nothing more than a black scramble of ink, then solid black, then nothing. In another example, hand-written notes between a non-verbal character and others are represented as single lines or even single words on otherwise blank pages. In some chapters, words and phrases are outlined in ink, while in others images are printed among the words.
While the practice is effective in some circumstances, in others it comes across as a bit of a gimmick. I think that maybe this is due to a lack of consistency, and as a result it feels like Foer is just playing around with format. When it works, it’s brilliant, but the novel is quick to return to standard format after these explorations. Unlike Invisible Cities, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close fails to work (in my opinion, of course) because while the physical text represents the character’s emotions and journey, it doesn’t represent the reader’s journey, and it is the reader who is affected by the presentation of the story, not the characters.
Therefore, if we are breaking down the format and presentation of a piece of literature, it should both inform the reader and form a representation of the reader’s journey as they experience the book.
Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves
Here, those two aspects come together brilliantly. House of Leaves excercises non-typical chapter formatting, font choice, page layout, images and even footnotes to convey the characters’ mindset, to reinforce the themes of the story and to represnt the readers journey by making the them an active participant in the progression of story and the actions involved in reading the physical book.
In chapters that explore labyrinthian themes, the reader finds themselves lost and trying to make sense of the confusing and overwhelming number of references and footnotes, winding back and forth through pages, forced to read backwards or even upside down. When action in the story becomes tense and threatening, the reader is forced to sprint through dozens of pages at a time, each page containing a single word or even just fragments of words in a clever representation of the stretching of time and space. Even the cover page of the book, like the walls of the house described in one of the narratives, is about half an inch too small to contain what is inside.
Of particular interest is the title: House of Leaves. The book is somewhat centered around the narrative of a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The book is as well. And what is a book if not a house for leaves of paper? As characters explore the titular house, the reader becomes an explorer as well, plagued by the eccentricities of Danielewski’s formatting choices. The formatting represents both the characters’ and the readers’ journeys in a way that creates a feedback loop where we begin to wonder if the characters and the book itself, for that matter, are not some representation of ourselves. What we find inside is informed by Danielewski’s text, but enforced by what we take in with us.
There are countless others, I am sure, that are exploring the boundaries of book formatting and presentation, but these represent three uniquely different approaches. This is a topic that I would like to revisit in the future, and it is a concept I am trying to explore in my own work.
That being said, I have much to learn. In the meantime I will be seeking out other texts that push the envelope in terms of book design and format. If you have recommendations, please leave them in the comments below.
Thanks, and keep writing.