Read (and write) between the lines (and in the margins (and in the footnotes (and anywhere you want)))

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:

  1. A1
  2. A2 B1
  3. A3 B2 C1
  4. A4 B3 C2 D1
  5. A5 B4 C3 D2 E1
  6. B5 C4 D3 E2 F1
  7. C5 D4 E3 F2 G1
  8. 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.

Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” (a review)

Dreams, memories, signs. Some things we experience passively, influenced by them but not focusing our attention on them for more than a moment. Looking without seeing, hearing without listening, touching without feeling.

Invisible Cities can have the same effect on you, slipping by your senses if you let your guard down. Be careful not to let the easy readability take advantage of you, because as a reader you are constantly at risk of being wooed and passing through the experience in a daze.

Contained within its slim binding are pastiches, dream-like notes on fantastic and exotic cities visited by the adventurer, Marco Polo himself, as described by him to the great Kublai Khan. Each city, bearing a woman’s name, is described to the reader in precise detail in the ways that make it unique. As we traverse the pages however, it becomes clear that we are not simply learning about the various cities Marco Polo has explored. Any of the descriptions could be taken to describe any city, the same city, despite their fanciful design.

What’s more is the cities are not things independent of their people, nor are they the products of their people. The cities we discover throughout these delightful pages are reflections, images of the people who inhabit them. These cities are made up of the same stuff that their people are made of, and we discover this through various mediums: signs, dreams, memories.

If you should have the opportunity to explore Invisible Cities, please do, but proceed with caution. You might just as easily have walked a dozen miles through a street whose patrons are quickly forgotten. Pay attention, slow down, and meditate – as the Khan might have – on the images throughout. It is a truly rewarding and uplifting experience.

Well, hello there.

Hi, readers. It’s been long time since the blog was last active, so first of all I’d like to say thanks for being patient. I’ve been working on a project that has taken up most of my time but now that I have a little more availability, I’m going to be posting on mmo ore regular basis.

Some things to watch out for in the coming months:

  • More short stories, both horror and otherwise
  • More poetry
  • More book reviews

Also, the thing I’m most excited about, which is…

More chapters of my novel in progress, The Keeping of the Light!

All of this, plus more, coming soon. Thanks all and, remember,

Keep writing.

Thoughts on a Sunday morning

It’s almost noon, and I’m sitting outside with my coffee. Cars are driving by, there are ducks flying, and it’s one of the warmest days we’ve had this year so far. I really enjoy slow, lazy mornings like this one.

I figured since I’m not really doing anything productive, I’ll make a little update here about what I’m working at right now.

I posted yesterday about my new collection of poems that I’m editing and finishing, but I’ve got some other stuff in the works as well. I’ve been making an effort to post more chapters of my fantasy novel The Keeping of the Light lately, and with good reason: I’ve written more chapters. I’d been on somewhat of a hiatus from the novel since early last year, and have been focusing on other things. That changed a couple of weeks ago when I started reading over my progress so far.

When I stopped writing last year, my plan was to take a short break from the project to decide a direction for one of the main characters. However, a short break became a long break and that long break turned into a year.

Coming back to the project after all this time, and reading my work up until now, the direction is clear. Honestly I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.

Now, I’m posting at least a chapter a day until I’m up to my current progress, and then i can finally start posting the new chapters. I’m really looking forward to seeing things how things turn out from here.

On top of that, I’m also prepping another book review, something I’ve only done once so far. Keep an eye out for that.

And hey, look at that: my coffee is gone. Damn. Should I grab my computer and get to work? Should I get another cup? Maybe I should just sit here for another hour and read for a while.

While I’m trying to decide what to do with my day, I hope you enjoy yours, wherever you happen to be.

Happy writing.

Tim Winton’s “Dirt Music” (a review)

71quu9mnv5lI’m a lover of many things, but music is special.

Music is immediate. Direct. It doesn’t take study to feel music. There is something instinctive about the rhythms and melodies that, even if you can’t sing it, you get it, somehow. That’s what reading Tim Winton’s “Dirt Music” is like.

The story follows Georgie (a former nurse living with her tough guy fisherman boyfriend and his sons) and Lu (a silent musician making a simple living poaching) in Western Australia. The two have a chance meeting and, of course, become involved.

Except it’s not that simple. When I tell people about the novel and they ask “what genre is it?” I always struggle. In its most basic form “Dirt Music” is a love story, but it’s unique because for the majority of the story, Georgie and Lu aren’t even in touch. Instead, we are faced with the personal journeys of each character, and how love and connection with each other changes them in different ways.

The way this book is written is just as important as what is written. Chapters trade off between Georgie and Lu, ranging from weeks worth of time to sparse pages that capture, beautifully, a single moment in shocking detail. Opposing tenses launch us immediately into the mindset of each character, with Georgie’s chapters in past tense and Lu’s in present. It works so well that, on my first read, I didn’t even notice until about a third of the way through.

There’s a real sense of space in “Dirt Music” that permeates both the story and the writing style. We cover hundreds of kilometers, passing through country that is so open it makes you feel small. Brief chapters and short, realistic dialogue result in white space that sometimes engulfs the written word. Like the moments of silence between beats in a song. There’s quite a lot of emptiness in these pages, and that emptiness is important. Like the land, it divides and makes the scope of the novel’s setting all the more real.

And the prose is wonderful. Stark impressions of the landscape. Sensations that thrill and frighten and disturb. At times the writing becomes almost surreal, forgoing concrete reality for something more poetic, more musical. Winton uses the sounds and shapes of words to convey what’s happening and, like all great music, you just get it.

Love. Death. Music. It’s all there, and it’s worth a read. Cheers.

Things on the way.

The subtitle of this blog is “poems, prose and ponderings” and the last part of that subtitle is what I’d like to bring attention to. Between posts of my own work I’m going to periodically post my thoughts about other works that I’ve read. I hesitate to say that these will be reviews, but that’s what I’ll be calling them. You can think of them as my personal impressions.

I may also share my thoughts on writing as a process from time to time. These aren’t intended to be guides – I’m not a published author and writing is not my “job” – but I always find it interesting to hear other peoples’ take on writing and the connection they have with it.

I can’t say whether these ideas will become recurring topics on the site or not. I may change my mind in time and stick to only posting my work, but we’ll see what happens. Cheers.