Reading is a solitary practice, yet it is also a strangely social practice. Writers write to be read, and we read to enjoy the opportunity to explore other spaces and other identities. And the fundamental nature of the book hasn’t changed much since we started slapping together piles of papyrus or kicking a scroll open across the temple floor and announcing that you’ve got a bit of a diatribe coming on. We read from start to finish. From front to back (which is entirely dependent on local definitions of “front” and “back,” I realize). Comic book authors and illustrators mess with the “sequential” flow of panels at their own risk.
I’ve come to an interesting realization over these last few years about how I get from start to finish: I adopt several different personas as I read. I read as a publisher and editor, which means I read closely at the beginning, skim the middle, and then check the end of a book to make sure the ending tracks with what my expectations are. As a writer, I tend to prefer shorter books–the kind I can devour in a few sittings without having to make a huge investment in time and attention. A ten-volume fantasy series? Yeah, probably not going to happen. And I find myself skipping over large chunks of expository text. I don’t need to know all the inner peregrinations of a character or the artful verbiage describing a physical location. As a bookseller, I’ll skim. A lot. Because I need to know enough about the book to recommend it to a customer, or be able to talk about it if someone asks. But actually read every word? Yeah, not so much.
[Which is a shame, because I’ll get an advance copy of something like Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s new book, What We Become and I’ll read the flap copy, a few chapters, and then a bookseller pitch will pop up in my head. “It’s like Pérez-Reverte went to write a Nicholas Sparks novel, but couldn’t help himself. ‘What?’ He’d say. ‘Any love story is better with tango, ships, and nefarious KGB agents.’” And now that I know that pitch, I can put the book down because there are other books clamoring for my attention.]
And, reading as a reader? I’m not sure I remember how to do that anymore. Which is a lie. I do. It’s just the last persona in a long list of how I come to a book, and the one that gets served most infrequently. It’s the one that I’m aware that I should cultivate more often, because reading for pleasure is one of the most vital parts of being an active creative thinker. You need to take some time to let someone else entertain you once in a while. It can’t all be work, work, work. We know what that leads to.
All of these reading styles have been on my mind a lot lately as I’ve been working on putting together the print version of my hypertext novel, The Potemkin Mosaic. Originally presented as an online experience that was meant to be entered at multiple points, and where there was no clear “right” way to read it, the struggle I had for many years was how to replicate that confusion of purpose and direction in the print version. One of the ideas was to present the book as a series of smaller books that would reference each other, creating an experience that would–over time, as you spread out all these tiny books out on your desk–replicate the hypertext experience. But then I came to my senses, and realized that most of my readers would hate that experience. Certainly, most of my reading “personas” would be ready to take me out behind the woodshed for a private talk if I forced that on them.
And while I was wrestling this this conundrum, I started to see books showing up in the store that weren’t presented in traditional formats. Of course, we have Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves as the go-to reference text for this sort of cryptic narrative flow, but last fall we had The Dead House and Illuminae. And now, Sleeping Giants. These are modern versions of the epistolary novel–a book presented as a series of documents.
Sleeping Giants, a debut novel by Sylvain Neuvel, offers what seems to be a familiar story—girl falls through hole in her backyard, finds a giant robot hand, and grows up to be a physicist tasked with deciphering the mystery of the robot—but where the story goes sideways on us is in its presentation. Told entirely through interviews, transcripts, journal entries, and the like, Sleeping Giants presents the race to find the rest of the robot from a distance. We’re never quite present in the narrative, and we’re never quite sure those who are being interviewed are telling us the truth, or—for that matter—who is the mysterious interviewer asking all the questions. It’s a narrative style that forces us to ask what’s happening off the page. We have to trust the author, even though we know they are intentionally obscuring parts of the story from us.
Illuminae is told in a similar style, though much more graphically rendered. Blacked out words, distorted text, and fancy typography illustrate different document sources and narrative voices. The flap copy says it’s the story of two mega-corporations who are battling it out for the control of a speck of a planet in a distant system. The names of the corporations are blacked out, of course, because we’re not supposed to know THAT information up front. Much of the elisions and redactions in the narrative are done by some hand that is attempting to prevent us from clearly seeing what is going on. Again, we are left with puzzling out the true narrative from what is not readily available to the reader.
Lastly, Dawn Kuytagich’s debut novel from last fall, The Dead House, is a collection of material that is supposed to reveal the truth behind a mysterious fire that took the lives of three teenagers at Elmbridge High. The main suspect is a girl who doesn’t exist, except some think she is a personality manifestation of a girl who has been missing since the fire. The puzzle is left to the reader who have psychiatric reports, witness testimonials, video footage, and a diary recovered from the ruins as the body of material from which they must suss out what actually happened that night.
And this is the key phrase here: “they must suss out what actually happened.” This is the onus put on the reader by the author, and it’s a burden not lightly given because there are many many books vying for your attention (note my stacks that are threatening to overwhelm me). On the other hand, the sort of reader who eagerly engages in this sort of attentive reading is one who will love a book that doesn’t betray the trust that has been given to them. And, as a writer and bookseller, I do have to admit that these are the sorts of readers I want to connect with, because these are the readers who are going to share a book that speaks dearly to them. And not just to me. But to their friends, family, and maybe the occasional stranger at the dog park.
Because while reading is a solitary practice, what that reading communicates to you isn’t solitary. It’s a little bit of what connects us all, and it’s how we know we’re not alone.
Mark Teppo is a publisher, author, and bookseller in the South Puget Sound area. He’s the author of The Potemkin Mosaic, a dream journal written by a man who a certain pharmaceutical company would like you to think doesn’t exist. They may be wrong. It could all be a lie. Or maybe there’s an even stranger truth hidden within that fragmented narrative. You see how this works? It’s kind of hard to tell when you’ve started reading the book, because you might be getting sucked into it already . . .