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Monday, April 18, 2016

The Return of Print: How "Visual Writing" Reclaims the Page


E-readers have shown off some impressive bells and whistles. Now it's print's turn to show what physical can do that electronic can't.  ♦ 
E-readers have become a large part of the contemporary reading experience ever since Amazon released the Kindle in 2007. A recent Pew Research study found that the ownership of e-readers has risen since 2012 and that, as of 2014, 50 percent of American adults owned some type of reading device. Many had begun predicting the fallout and eventual death of print publishing based on the rise in e-readership, but while it’s true that millions of books are still being published electronically every year, thanks in part to Kindle Direct Publishing, sales of e-books have actually begun to decrease, save for the adult erotica genre.
    With this decline in e-book sales has come an increase for the printed adult paperback, hardcover, young adult, and religious categories. In 2015, bookstore sales rose by 2.5%, which was the first increase since 2007. The number of bookstores is going up as well, and indie bookstores have been especially successful.
    There are many reasons why there has been an upswing in the sales of printed works, and one of those is that some publishing houses have been reinvesting in what print and the physical form is capable of. One such publishing house is London’s Visual Editions, which describes their impeccably-designed books “visual writing”: “Visual elements can come in all shapes and guises: they could be crossed out words, or photographs, or die-cuts, or blank pages, or better yet something we haven’t seen. The main thing is that the visuals aren’t gimmicky, decorative or extraneous, they are key to the story they are telling. And without them, that story would be something altogether different.” Visual Editions exclusively publishes books that employ some type of visual rhetoric, and as their editors have noted, “There is a rich literary heritage for this kind of writing and this very much forms the basis for what we’re setting out to do.”
    This concept of “visual writing” is nothing new; author Marc Saporta published Composition no 1: roman in 1962, which was a book in a box that came with 150 loose-leaf pages, each with a section of the story. The instructions asked the reader to shuffle the pages and read the story in that order. Visual Editions published a new edition of Saporta’s novel in 2011.
    Many other authors have experimented with their own ideas of creating novels that have certain visual or interactive aspects that cannot be replicated on an e-reader or tablet. They are not necessarily attempting to combat the electronic reading experience but rather are drawn to a rich form of art that allows authors to express themselves through some alternative forms of publishing.
    Some of these other books include Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer took the book The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz and used die-cut techniques to quite literally cut out a new story by carving out the words he did not need. Now, the new story that emerged could be written and published electronically, but then a reader would not have the experience of seeing the disfigured pages and trying to read the words whittled from another novel.
Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
    Another popular example is S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. This experience of visual writing begins with the packaging of this work, which resembles the look of an old book called Ship of Theseus. The pages are comprised of typed words and a written story, which is Ship of Theseus proper, but the margins contain a second level of story via handwritten notes between two people passing the book back and forth. In order to understand the entire journey, one must read all of these notes, which are written in two distinctive handwritings as well as different colors to signify writing on different days. There are also postcards, letters, maps, and other memorabilia and hints scattered throughout the pages, which must be read and then reinserted in-between the same pages. Everything is placed just so in order to ensure a reader “discovers” a clue exactly when he or she was supposed to. The authors sought to create a very immersive experience.
    The list of alternative forms of print publishing goes on, and it’s not only fictional novels that are experimenting with visual writing. A company in Croatia has published several books that contain their annual reports and other business materials, but these glow in the dark. Another German design firm has printed a cookbook on pages made of pasta that can later be baked into a lasagna. And, of course, McSweeney’s is an American magazine that is printed in a new format with each publication.
    Readers have found visual novels to be works of art in more ways than just the writing. These books turn reading into an even more interactive and engaging experience. And what this underscores is that reading in print is about more than just the presentation of the words on a page; the physical, tactile, and spatial nature of reading in print is part of the experience. Readers who have stood by the printed word amidst the wave of e-reading have long expressed their fondness for a physical book to hold and have a capability of writing in it. They like to save their place by folding over the corner, put notes in the margins, and even smell a brand new novel. Visual writing simply takes those actions a step further by enhancing the interactive experience that books already offer. Miami student and avid reader Alison Block said, “You form a personal connection with a book . . . A Kindle, no matter how many books you read on it, you could just throw it away because those books are immaterial.”
    When asked about visual writing, Block said, “Those (books) are interesting. [They’re] so different from what’s been thought of as the novel for the past 400 years. I like . . . these people experimenting with art.” Ms. Block is not the only one excited to see what the physical book is capable of. Print publishing is far from over, and many readers are eager to see what authors try next as they explore this art of visual writing.
  • About the Author
    Ashley Frahm is a junior in the Professional Writing major and Sociology minor at Miami University. She participates on the varsity track and field team, as well as in Cru, a.k.a. Campus Crusade for Christ. When she can find the time, she loves to relax by reading, hammocking, or watching Netflix. Mostly the latter.

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