The Different Objects Books Can Be: Transformation Through Experimental Formats

The Different Objects Books Can Be: Transformation Through Experimental Formats

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Books have boundaries. They are words on paper. They can’t do everything that other forms of media can do. But, sometimes, books can transform themselves right before your very eyes. That’s why experimental formats are amazing. They make you rethink everything that a book can communicate and how you interact with it. Some attempts can be gimmicky, that’s true. When structure is prioritized over story, it can be disastrous. But when the structure propels the story and your connection to it, the results can be breathtaking. Here are some of the items experimental books can become:


81a4F%2BMuYrL.jpgGames have instructions. Games have rules. Games evoke suspense and strategic thinking. The Harlequin and the Train by Paul Tremblay is a horror novella that requires you to interact with it. Your game piece: a yellow highlighter. The novella instructs you to highlight certain lines of the book. As you read, you’re no longer just the voyeur of a violent accident that takes place in the story, you are participating in it. Anxiety heightens as you get closer to the end of a game, as it will by the end of this short book.


The plot of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is about a labyrinth of sorts, and the book parallels that beautifully. The majority of the book is a manuscript that the narrator found. The manuscript is about a documentary that doesn’t exist in our world or the narrator’s world. The documentary is about a house that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. And it keeps growing. This massive horror novel plays with your mind in many ways, as the stars of the documentary go deeper into their expanding house. And as the manuscript goes on, the format gets really weird. How you read the pages gets confusing. You have to go back and forth between footnotes, the appendix, and the narrator’s thoughts in the margins. You’re not sure which character is going mad, or if you’re losing it. The journey through its paths is as terrifying as it is fascinating.


You know the one. Each time you find it, you can’t get yourself to throw it away. Not because you’re going to DO anything with it. It’s too old and grimy to display anywhere. But it makes you feel something that you can’t feel with anything else. It’s easy to find nostalgia in books like The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson, because they’re so reminiscent of time spent paging back and forth through Choose Your Own Adventure books in the school library until you manage to get to an ending where you don’t fuck everything up. The Unfortunates is a book in a box. There’s a first section, and then you read the rest of the chapters in any random order you want. WHAT.


Ok, so this isn’t really an object. But a phone is! Whatever. Once we’re in the impending singularity, I’m sure our robo-fingers will be able to virtu-caress all the apps we want. Works of poetry and fiction found in alt-lit, such as Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee by Megan Boyle, are turning social media writing into an art form. Boyle’s book is written in tweets, short blog posts, and lists. They read like a very personal diary, often reference pop culture, and explore the malaise of a struggling twenty-something who grew up on the internet. She can be funny, highly intelligent, and poignantly sad all within 140 characters. Reading her book is like stalking your coolest, funniest friend’s social media.


While some experimental books try to spiral you out of our normal world, showing you the abstract complexities of life, some bore deep into you. The experimental form can be used to mimic the act of being human. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride attempts to do this by creating a whole new stream-of-consciousness style grammar, replicating what it would be like to actually be inside the main character’s head. Words aren’t where you want them to be, and neither is punctuation. It’s difficult both in structure and in topic. You have to learn to read again. How to be a person again. And you have to learn how to really deeply understand somebody’s mind, even when what you’ll find is almost impossible to bear.

What have experimental books become for you? 


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