It’s a question that spurred many others for me, not because I believe books that fail to include Alice’s aforementioned attributes are somehow valueless, but because I began wondering how pictures and conversation—dare I say controversy?—might contribute to an unconventional reading experience.
When we read a book we read a book—the verb we use is “read.” And while we may indeed “experience” it by way of the reading process, over the past year I’ve grown interested in books that place a premium on the experience itself; books that refuse passivity, books that require engagement.
Throughout writing Dispatches from the Drownings—a visual, hybrid text consisting of drowning reports both factual and fabricated—I returned to other books equally demanding in their reader participation.
The first—and the primary inspiration for my own work—is Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, a cult-class collage consisting of seemingly bizarre late 19th-early 20th century news reports from Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The reports are paired with black and white photographs from the era, creating a reading experience as existential as it is spine-tingling, a book’s worth of life, death, trauma, and tragedy harnessed on the page. The book is overrun with epidemics, suicide, and murder, all of which contribute to Lesy’s curated narrative, one that tries to make sense—or at least document—the alleged madness of the era.
Equally unconventional is Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands—an illustrative book that offers brief histories of little-known islands coupled with maps of the islands themselves. The islands—from Rapa Iti (“482 inhabitants”) to Semisopochnoi (“uninhabited”) reawaken our imaginations, reminding us that mysteries remain in the world, that there are still places barely brushed by the careful charting of cartography. In her introduction, Schalanksky writes, “Maps tells us much more when they do not divide nature into nations; when they allow it to form the basis of comparison across all borders made by man.” I can’t help but read this as a battle cry against boundaries, a message that refutes classification and embraces hybridity—a world in which a place (or a book) need not be categorized as this or that but both.
While the previous two texts make good use of Alice’s call for pictures, a final influence—Michael Martone’s The Blue Guide to Indiana—relies more heavily on the “conversation” side. The book—a work of fiction—looks and feels and reads like the popular Blue Guide travel guides that line the shelves at the local bookstore. In fact, I first discovered the book myself as a teenager while restocking the travel section at the bookstore where I worked. Martone’s book had disguised itself so neatly that even my boss—a veteran of the book industry—had inventoried it as a travel guide. I made no attempt to correct him, just clandestinely slipped Martone’s book alongside the others, perpetuating the ruse. Martone’s invented destinations have fooled more than a few Hoosier travelers, many of whom have taken to the road in search of The Tomb of Orville Redenbacher in Valparaiso, as well as The Leaning Tower of Paoli in—you guessed it—Paoli. The book’s form welcomes reader participation, re-appropriating the travel guide to plant the seeds of truth in an imaginary garden.
What are we to make of books that bypass the conventional structure of beginning, middle, and end? And how do we feel about texts that ask us to do more than merely read them? I admit, when first cracking the flaps these books made for a disconcerting reading experience. And I admit also that it’s my great hope that Dispatches from the Drownings proves equally disconcerting. I want readers to read the dispatches, view the photos, and experience the interplay for themselves. I want them to question what’s true, what’s false, and how to grieve for people they never knew (who may or may not have existed). While I would never go so far as to imply that this genre-confusion is meant to replicate the experience of drowning, I will note that the discomfort I’ve created is intentional. I hope readers might be willing to toe the waterline of a new reading experience, to embrace uncertainty from the safety of the shoreline.