December 21, 2014 § 2 Comments
December 12, 2014 § 2 Comments
That I can’t decide if I like this book best for its visuals or its text is, I think, a big part of the point. After all, the author is associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf, whose designs (according to his bio) have been described… “as being the most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction.”
It makes sense then that What We See When We Read comes across as a crafted, multi-sensory experience.
The subject matter is ‘narrative’… both from a reading and a having-been-written perspective—how narrative is displayed, how it enters our eyes and our minds, what stays with us and why; what we look for, what we find, what we can expect from the writer, and what’s down to the reader.
The paragraphs are bite-sized and pages often contain acres of white space (or, alternatively, are almost entirely black), with only a few bullet points or a single word.
The style is ‘essay-in-fragments mixed with graphics mixed with illustrations mixed with photos, mixed with something like the memoir of a passionate reader’. (May I add that pages have a wonderful satiny feel, serving as a reminder that the physical experience is part of reading.)
In about the middle of the book (pp. 152/53) all is black, and in tiny white print, in an arch from bottom left to bottom right, this quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cites:
“Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. ‘But which is the stone that supports the bridge?’ Kublai Kahn asks. ‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco Polo answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’”
Mendelsund’s use of a visual arch, with reference to an actual arch, to show the theory of narrative arc… is typical of how this book is constructed: he not only explains how we read and what we see while we do it, but he has us walking through the experience at the same time. An obvious move of course, but it takes a minute to realize exactly how it all works and to just relax with it.
In places the book feels almost chatty, as when the author shares his distaste for elaborate descriptions, which he sees as nothing more than ‘misdirection’… “They seem to tell us something specific and meaningful (about a character, a setting, the world itself), but perhaps such description delights in inverse proportion to what it reveals.”
While both aspects of What We See When We Read are equal and both can be seen as simplistic or as layered as you like, I found myself becoming frustrated with the choice, as if I was being asked to read/experience two different books. This may be part of the overall plan to illustrate the reading/visual experience but I find it a tad too much of a muchness, a few too many graphics and ‘design’ elements that begin to have the opposite effect of what they’re intended for—they become less illustrative and more overload of the same multi-senses (which then begin to tune out simultaneously). For that reason best consumed, perhaps, by dipping into now and again, enjoying bits at a time instead of reading straight through.
Bottom line: despite its pleasures, at 417 pages, it feels a little over-done.
That aside, I can see this as a good book club choice. In which case, some knowledge of Anna Karenina and a few other classics would be helpful (various narrative devices are highlighted with examples from a number of books you thought you’d read but actually never have). Helpful but not necessary.
In fact, a book club might be the ideal way to savour it. Whereas the pleasure of some books is not enhanced through sharing, especially with people who see it very differently (read: one person’s exhileration is another person’s sleeping pill), What We See When We Read purports to be neither; it simply wants to be seen and discussed by as many and varying perspectives as possible. And if not everyone reads the whole thing, it matters not one whit. The whole thing can still be discussed, and enjoyment multiplied.
Because, you see, it’s not exactly a book, it’s merely about them. And therefore about us too.
December 10, 2014 § 15 Comments
December 9, 2014 § 1 Comment
Dear Tiffany & Co.
The full-page ad in my weekend newspaper, a sketched illustration, has me wondering about your sensibilities… Lovely are the ad’s colours, and the sentiments of giving exquisite gifts in small blue boxes, well, I’m sure it’s never an unpleasant box to receive. But heavens to betsy, your sense of proportion is perhaps a little off.
Here’s the scene as I see it: a woman is decked out in a body-hugging satin dress, a slip of a dress, that threatens to fall off at any moment, while she climbs a step-ladder in five-inch heels to add a bauble to the xmas tree. A fully-dressed man stands and watches, holding behind his back a little blue box, presumably for the satin-bedecked woman as a reward. For what? For decorating the tree? For being able to function in five-inch heels? For choosing a slinky dress that refuses to stay on?
It doesn’t much matter. And this isn’t the issue anyway. (I have every confidence there are as many Tiffany & Co. ads where it’s the guy in tight clothing, arranging baubles from a tippy-toe position atop a ladder while a chick stands there waiting to present him with a little sparkly something or other. Right??)
In any case, this isn’t the issue. It’s the size of these people. He is exceedingly tall, a handsome near-giant who could simply raise one arm and hang the stupid bauble himself from where he stands. She, on the other hand, is oddly small by comparison. Remove the heels and the ladder and you have an oh-so-delicate creature… in a slinky dress that’s about to fall off.
And so I wonder: why???
Not why can’t she buy her own jewellery, or why do we need to see the shape of her buttocks and thighs and bosom through that dress, or even how is she managing to balance on that ladder in those shoes… but why do the chaps in ads never get to star in the honoured role of small and delicate creature?
Some women are tall. Some men are not.
All the best to you, and happy holidays.
May each of your baubles be hung with joy.
December 8, 2014 § 1 Comment
I’ve known ‘mo’ since the 80’s when we were both working in various ends of marketing at a big ugly corporation. More importantly, we used to have lunch together. She with the perfectly made sandwiches carried in properly sized Tupperware made for exactly that purpose; beautifully wrapped and sliced fruit; an exquisite wedge of cheese. My lunch, on the other hand, amounted to a few slices of salami and unbuttered rye bread crammed into an old sour cream container as I flew out the door in the morning… to be unfolded and assembled later. Sometimes a going black banana. She found all this amusing.
I lived in Toronto then, the magnificent centre of the universe, and she didn’t, which I found both odd and amusing. She lived in a town, you see. A town with county carnivals and music in the park on Wednesday evenings. Bring a chair and bug spray, that kind of thing. Or so I gathered from the stories she told. I’d never been there. I lived in Toronto, remember… who needs to go anywhere else?
On Monday mornings I’d ask about village parades and swatting flies on the porch. I was young and cheeky. (And—because it can never be stated often enough—I lived in Toronto.) Eventually, we went our separate ways, she to work in publishing and me, I moved around a lot… jobs, apartments, cities, continents. But we never lost touch. And this was well before the internets made keeping in touch easy as pie.
Eventually the small town got too big for ‘mo’ and she moved to an even smaller place. And me, well, as it turned out, I eventually moved to the very same hicksville town ‘mo’ used to live in, the one with the flies and the porches and the parades.
Tell me that’s not amusing.
—A few things I know about ‘mo': she doesn’t like to go barefoot, she’s been a vegetarian since childhood, and I’m pretty sure she still makes a precisely sliced lunch.
How long could you go without talking? All day.
Do you prefer silence or noise? Silence.
How many pairs of shoes do you own? Five.
If you won the lottery? Help those who need it, but without adversely changing their lives.
One law you’d make? Disrespect would be illegal.
Unusual talent? Pitman Shorthand. (which is properly done with a pencil, not a pen)
What do you like to cook? I don’t.
Have you or would you ever bungee jump? No. And no.
What’s the most dare-devilish thing you’ve done? Crossing a rope bridge in British Colombia. No idea why I did it. And the worst part was I had to come back the same way.
Do you like surprise parties, practical jokes? Somewhat.
Favourite time of day? Early morning. No. Mid-afternoon.
What tree would you be? A weeping willow; they’re quiet and I love those swaying branches.
Best present ever received? A brand new Remington Rand typewriter when I was sixteen.
What do you like on your toast? Butter.
The last thing you drew a picture of? I doodle all the time but I don’t draw. So, a doodle.
Last thing written in ink? Shopping list.
Favourite childhood meal? Egg and chips.
What [past] age is your favourite? My twenties.
Would you go back if you could? Yes.
Best invention? The wheel.
Describe your childhood bedroom. It was small, a box room they were called, with a bed against the wall. My dad made a side cupboard for toys and a corner cupboard. I begged him for a drawer in the corner cupboard, which I realize now would have been tricky to make, but he did it.
Afraid of spiders? Not afraid, but don’t like them. Wouldn’t kill one though.
Least favourite teacher and why? Mrs. Jenshaw, she taught English and was very strict and I was scared of her more than anything. As a teacher she was actually very good; I learned a lot from her.
Favourite children’s story? The Famous Five series, by Enid Blyton.
Ideal picnic ingredients? Soft rolls, egg salad, grapes, fresh fruit, potato chips, juice.
Is Barbie a negative role model? Yes.
Best thing about Canada? Standard of living.
Best thing about people in general? I’ve got no time for people, give me animals.
What flavour would you be? Cherry.
What colour? White.
What would you come back as? A cat.
Favourite saying: Give over!
December 5, 2014 § 12 Comments
I was going to Not Review a book today but then the guy that killed Eric Garner in Staten Island was not charged with killing him because, I suppose, he’s a policeman. And maybe because he’s white. And very possibly because Eric Garner isn’t.
The message is crystal clear: white policemen in America may kill whoever they damn well want, even if that person happens to be doing nothing more nefarious than selling untaxed cigarettes. And especially if they happen to be black. They may kill such persons by choking them on the street even while the dying person is informing them that they can’t breathe. I mean, he’s being killed right there on the street and what he does is inform the killer that he can’t breathe… as if, even in that moment he, Eric Garner, gave the policeman the benefit of the doubt that he, the policeman, would care to know that detail. It was a reasonable assumption… that if the policeman were aware that he was killing Eric Garner, he, the policeman would stop.
This is what I can’t breathe means.
It means Eric Garner was human and he made the mistake of thinking the policeman was too.
I can’t Not Review a book today when this comes on the heels of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
And the child that was shot for pointing a toy gun.
Nor can I write about the beach or the moon or the sky or the amazing serendipity of life sometimes and the way so very much is beautiful, the way people can be beautiful. It’s all out there, it is… and mostly I’m drawn to finding it. It’s not that hard really. I think it’s important to share.
But today I’m thinking about injustice and hatred and the why of it all. Is there a why?? I’m thinking about the way it might feel to lose someone in this unspeakable way… the shock, sadness, frustration, fear, anger, despair, and how those emotions will add yet another ugly layer to society’s increasingly unattractive skin. I’m thinking why we allow the unattractiveness to grow, why it is we don’t improve, why we allow injustice, vote for it even. I’m thinking how tomorrow is the twenty fifth anniversary of the murder of fourteen women in Montreal and what we have learned in all that time… have we learned anything?
So, no, I can’t write about books today. Or even beauty…