Pet Book #8: From Book History to Material Writing

The materiality of a text is in and of itself an interesting subject to discuss because arguably all text, in one way or another, is material. Even digital texts exist materially in the way that they are coded or OCR’ed onto the internet. Because we focused so much this week on poetry that is formatted in ways that force us to interact with it differently, at first I was not sure how exactly to approach this subject with my Pet Book. After all, my Pet Book is just that – a book. It doesn’t have any particularly fanciful formatting that would make us engage with the words on the page in a different way, and the images are relatively stagnant in their placement and appearance. However, I think that that “normalcy” is exactly what is important in making up the materiality of this specific text. The font is relatively similar to the Times New Roman I am typing in now (though I know on WordPress it will appear differently – an interesting aspect of the materiality of online formatting) and the words are spaced out enough that it makes the text easy to read, though the lines are placed rather close together (possibly to fit as much text per-page as possible when being formatted to print?). Page after page the book looks the same, and as we flip through, our experience is shaped by that idea of sameness that we encounter.

Books, however, are interesting in that despite their seemingly visual monotony – broken up every now and then by an inserted image – we still have to physically engage with them by turning the pages to continue reading. In the same way that paragraph and page breaks separate lines of text, the actual page itself separates text onto either side. In the same way that we have to turn around comb poems or love knots in order to read the poem in full, we have to flip page by page, turn our heads and move our eyes (a more mundane activity, yes, but one that is still vital to readership and thus worth noting) in order to interact with and read the book. Johanna Drucker’s idea of “performative materiality” that was discussed in the comb poems piece we read highlights this dynamic relationship between seemingly static parts of a text and the way that they actively and purposefully contribute to the materiality of the text and our interactions with it. In the case of The Water Babies, which in this format was sold as a children’s book meant to be read by, or to, children, the physical aspects of the text that make it up also affect the way that we read it. Kingsley’s work is meant to be read and “moved” through as we would any other book, but that stereotypical idea of movement through a book or book-like work is notable. The difference between physically turning a page and clicking a button on your computer to watch a virtual page turn are, in theory, the same movement, but performed and experienced in two completely different ways. It is that juxtaposition of the same type of movement but executed and experienced in two completely different ways that makes the physical materiality of the book so unique.

The most interesting aspect in terms of the format/material makeup of the book that we experience is toward the end of the novel, when something like a limerick or a poem is quoted. In the image below, we can see that the text is written in a  block form, with phrases parallel to each other. But what order, exactly, are we supposed to read them in? Additionally, was the form broken up onto two separate pages on purpose, or did that occur as a result of the font and style of the book? Because the phrases do not appear to be in any particular rank order, our preference for how we read them is entirely up to us: they can be read one column at a time, as text in a textbook would be, or left to right and then back over and over again until we reach the very last line, which is placed in the very middle between each column. This small aspect of the book breaks up the perceived monotony of the text that we had experienced in all of the pages previously and jars us out of that line-by-line reading experience we had grown accustom to.

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