Books that Won’t Behave
Thinking about how to present my novel in an actual library setting, as I will be doing on Wed., Oct. 3, in the new library at SFSU. Libraries, imposing structures filled with study shelving lined with orderly books maintained by quietly efficient librarians, seem like places where one should not misbehave. But this is a new library, equipped with “100% more computers,” its web page boasts, a building where the books and the words inside them are digital as often as not. And we all know what can happen once a book finds its way into digital form, don’t we?
I think “shapeshifting” pretty much covers it. Digital material, unlike analog material, is made up of discrete pieces, and those pieces can come apart, fly away, regroup and reinvent themselves. Digital texts, unlike their printed predecessors, do not always behave the way we expect them to, as anyone who has read an ebook knows. In a digital book, the pages “stream” forward; words and the letters that compose them can assume variable shapes and sizes; there is no absolute number of pages. (“Page count” means nothing in a digital book – the 350 pages of “Venus on Mars” quickly mushrooms to 942 when viewed as an ebook on my iPhone!)
Traditional print books, on the other hand, have pages that stay put. The pages are usually numbered, and one numbered page follows another. What is put on one page remains there. Writers, for the most part, compose this way, one word after another, line by line, paragraph following paragraph, thought connected to next logical thought, until the narrative is complete. Authors expect their readers to experience the book the way it was written, page by page, start to finish (although peeking ahead or looking back is permitted).
That’s why I was so intrigued, when I went to Lowell Observatory to research my novel Venus on Mars, by documents in Wrexie Louise Leonard’s files in which her “normal” handwriting left to right was superimposed with another layer of handwriting top to bottom, as if the page had been turned ninety degrees mid-writing. Why, I wondered (there was no need to conserve paper – Percival Lowell endowed his Observatory with abundant resources)?
The linearity of a printed book depends so much on its layout, its binding, its assembly – physical constructs that can be undone by age, condition of book, or perhaps, I mused, by sheer deviousness. This writer was deliberately writing in a style that obscured the content, made her words less clear, less accessible, her own method of hiding secrets as she constructed her handwritten journal:
I have taken unusual care in fashioning my private thoughts, my words spread in patterns on the pages of my book like the constellations across the night sky – an archer, a queen on her throne, the fish, the water bearer, the twins, the bears big and small – celestial scenes that are clearly visible to those able to see in the arrangement of stars something more.
Wrexie (“Miss Lulu” in my book) was writing in a nonlinear manner, before nonlinear was a “thing.” Nonlinear writing imposes another level of processing on the reader, and the more intricate the construction, the more the reader must work – and think – to grasp the meaning of the patterns themselves, as well as the text within them. But some readers will be less inclined to put forth the additional effort required – all according to Miss Lulu’s plan:
But disorder, as we all know, is the absolute way of our unwieldy universe, and its irresolute state shall be my salvation: my carefully arranged words will appear to most as a mere scattering of stars.
Even printed books can misbehave, in the hands of an imaginative writer. My Venus on Mars event, I hope, will honor the tradition of such unruly authors, but will also celebrate the future of writing and reading: books constructed with links, books displaying patterns on multiple levels, books with benefits that extend well beyond the page, fitting for a brand new library inhabited by teeming texts that show themselves on computer screens, smart phones and tablets, offering insight and understanding as prizes awaiting readers who dare to grasp at flying pages and hold onto them.
Wednesday, October 3, at 4 p.m. in the new “Events Room” (room 121) of SFSU’s Leonard Library, is a fixed time and place. But what I hope to present there is not.
Books, I am pleased to announce, no longer behave – nor should they.