There’s a passage in Don DeLillo’s Underworld in which Father Paulus, a priest at a Jesuit reform school, challenges Nick Shay, one of his pupils, to name the parts of the shoe. Laces, Shay manages. Sole and heel. Then he drifts to a halt. ‘There’s not much to name, is there?’ he says. ‘A front and a top.’ Father Paulus draws from him that the name for the flap beneath the lace is the tongue. And that the holes that the lace pierces are eyelets. He tells him that the name for the strip of material around the top of the shoe is the cuff. The stiff section above the heel: the counter. The strip above the sole: the welt. Between the welt and the cuff is the quarter. The hard tips that reinforce the ends of the laces are aglets; the reinforcements that ring the eyelets (through which the aglets pass) are grommets.
Father Paulus says, ‘You don’t know how to see the thing because you don’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the names.’ He says, ‘How everyday things lie hidden. Because we don’t know what they’re called.’
What are the parts of a book?
There is a front and a back, there are the pages: not much to name. Let’s make the attempt though. As well as pages and a cover (front and back), there is a fore-edge, a spine and tail. There may, if the book is a hardback, be a jacket with front and back flaps. If it’s a paperback it may (more unusually) have French flaps. It may have endpapers. It will in all likelihood consist of a number of signatures – sets of pages, each of which was originally a single large sheet of paper that was folded and folded and cut and bound with others just like it in sequence. Within the book each two-page spread has a verso page on the left and a recto on the right, and beginning at page 1 (actually page i – prelims being conventionally numbered with lowercase roman numerals) we will probably come to at least a half-title page, a title page and an imprint page before we reach the text proper (we may also pass through a dedication, a contents page, a preface, an introduction, a bibliography of other books by the same author, translator’s or editor’s notes – anyway, some quantity or arrangement of these or other, similar devices). And once we finally reach the text, there will be a typesetting framework of (it is likely) running heads and page numbers that frames and supports the text block.
And it’s this text block that is the author’s residence, a home placed and built for them, constructed to a height of thirty-something lines and a width of about fifty to seventy characters. An author’s control is as limited or expansive as this: they can fill the rows of the text block with whatever words they choose.
This is where the polite author is expected to make their home, and not to venture out.
As readers we often conceive of the book as a thing of just two parts, the split between them large and obvious. There is the text, and then there is everything else. (Such neat Cartesian dualism!) The pure, disembodied text is the thing – it is significant, meaningful. Everything else (all that packages and accompanies the text) we think of as contingent, maybe even irrelevant.
If there is a great lexicographer of the book, it is Gérard Genette, the literary theorist who died last May, and he divides the book in this sort of fashion: into the text and the paratext, as he calls it. Though in the paratext Genette includes not just all the conventions and devices that constitute the book itself (this being the peritext), but also material further removed, outwith the container of the work, from author’s interviews to early versions of a work, to an author’s letters or the known content of their private conversations (this sort of thing being epitext).
The paratext, Genette tells us, exists at the threshold of the text, liminal to it, and presents the text to the reader (‘in the usual sense of the word but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world’).
The typical goal of the well-designed peritext is to disappear as it presents, to avoid drawing attention to itself, in the manner of a discreet butler.
So, for example, when a book is well typeset, we don’t consider the typesetting unless we have a professional interest. We just find, without noticing, that our thumbs sit in generous margins, that we don’t have to crack the spine to hunt for words that hide in the gutter, and that our eyes track easily across the lines.
Even the elements of the peritext that are meant to draw our attention do so cautiously. Unlike the rest of a book, the cover art and the blurb have as their intended audience not the reader but the maybe-reader. They hope to grab and then seduce this prospect, this browser, this mark, and to do so they hope to stand out. But at the same time they need to be familiar – and therefore unremarkable – enough to situate their book comfortably among others of the kind it aspires to be.
But although the peritext is discreet it applies pressure. We have our reading shaped for us by it, whether we choose to or not, whether we are aware of it or not. We always judge a book by the scaffolding of it as well as by the text, as unforgivingly as we hold each person we meet accountable for their own face. Choices of paratext, even seemingly small choices, can have a large impact on our reading.
Authors understand this; at least, plenty do.
Milan Kundera writes about a different post-humous betrayal of Kafka than the one we’re all familiar with (that he wanted his work to burn and it did not): he writes that Kafka insisted his books be printed with large type, only to have publishers – once they could enjoy the convenience of a dead author – ignore his wish.
This matters because, while an author who writes ‘lavishly articulated’ pages of small paragraphs does not require large type, Kafka’s prose flows out in long paragraphs, pages or even chapters in length. Text in long, continuous paragraphs is less easily legible: large type saves the eye from growing tired, and allows the reader to take pleasure in the prose, rather than struggle with it. So it is ‘justified, logical, serious, related to his aesthetic’, writes Kundera, for Kafka to want his prose set in large type.
Of course, there are authors who make more substantial aesthetic demands for the book than asking to have a slightly larger-than-usual typeface.
It’s possible to drag any part of the paratext into the text. The editorial apparatus perhaps most obviously. It is composed of words, so authors feel comfortable handling the material; as a result, fictive forewords and editors abound, contesting and manipulating our understanding of the text – from Don Quixote and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to The Book of Disquiet and Lolita.
A writer might also dislocate the linear order of the text. Julio Cortázar includes a table of instructions at the beginning of Hopscotch; ‘this book consists of many books, but two books above all’, it says, and suggests to the reader two ways of reading the novel. They can either follow a given list of chapter numbers which will jump them unpredictably back and forth as they move through the book, or else they can begin at the beginning and proceed normally as far as chapter 56 – and stop entirely, about a third from the end of the text (‘the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience’). Ali Smith’s How to Be Both has two parts, and which the reader encounters first depends on the copy of the book they happen to pick up (the order being reversed in half of the print run): this means it is also two books above all, and no reader can read both (the experience of either one precluding the other). B. S. Johnson published The Unfortunates in loose shuffle-able sections, with a start, an end and twenty-five sections between which are to be read in any order. He made the form of his book mimic the randomness of memory and the fragility of the body.
Johnson also cut holes in two leaves of Albert Angelo to reveal part of a future paragraph out of turn. And Jonathan Safran Foer cut holes to make Tree of Codes, excavating his text from someone else’s (Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles). Graham Rawle assembled thousands of lines of text cut from women’s magazines of the sixties to assemble them into his novel Woman’s World – the resulting collage gives his narrator a particular unhinged edge, a ransom note aesthetic.
For every aspect of the book we could find examples of authors meaningfully subverting the page. And not just the page. I have been talking about printed work, but there is a line that joins works like these to electronic literature, which takes advantage of the possibilities of the screen as a space for reading. (There are a lot of possibilities.) To go back to labelling our shoe momentarily – there are many names for work in which the author makes unusual use of the technology of the book, all defining themselves in different ways: ‘multimodal’, ‘transliterate’, ’metatextual’, there are those who discuss how ‘visible’ a text is or how ‘opaque’…
Authors of this kind of work are making an admission about their art that other writers – and readers who wish to consider only the pure text – implicitly deny: that the book possesses a body. So my preference is to consider them body-texts.
A body-text author working now has all the advantages of new printing and typesetting technologies available to them, as well as all the abundant possibilities of electronic literature (interactive fictions, fictions that incorporate sounds or video, that track the movement of readers or the flow of blood through their veins, fictions that appear in infinite variations, each copy of a book different from the last, books that evolve or collapse over time…). Though to take advantage they might have to teach themselves code, or typesetting, or bookbinding, or, or, or.
But there is a new countervailing pressure against them: a commercially produced book is expected to have simultaneous existences, both in print and as an e-book (and an e-book also capable of multiple lives, that can be read on phones, e-readers, laptops, wherever), and perhaps in audio too. To creatively attend to any one of these forms might undermine the existence of the others.
And then the author of a body text makes demands. They risk trying their publisher, on whose pocket and patience they depend to exist at all. If they are indulged, they still invite mishap.The original publication of Albert Angelo was delayed by the difficulty of cutting the holes. There were copies sent back by booksellers who believed them to be defective, and others apparently seized by customs agents who believed obscene material had been excised. (In 2004 the novel was included in an omnibus of Johnson’s work: the holes were misplaced by a line, entirely undermining their purpose.)
The author of the body-text also risks trying the reader, if the reader is of the sort inclined towards convention and liable to find it tiresome when convention is upset. And many readers do resent this sort of play, preferring to allow the stuff of the book to exist invisibly, as unconsidered as a shoe’s welt. Outrage and scorn can greet the author of the body-text – their efforts can be dismissed as gimmickry.
Why? Because around the body of the book, as around our own bodies, exist social rituals and decorums. When an author subverts the conventions of the book and reminds the reader of the book’s physical presence, it is felt as a rudeness and a breach of good hygiene.
(Is it because they are required to make themselves obnoxious that authors of body-texts tend to be men, taught to be comfortable with their own rudeness?)
Why then intervene in the anatomy of the book at all?
The answer is probably the same as the answer to the question ‘why write?’: you wouldn’t if you weren’t drawn to. But the body-text includes possibilities that we miss if we don’t care to learn the parts of the shoe. And as William Gass writes, ‘in the serious business of art, opportunities are enemies unless seized’. That you might unsettle the reader would be a poor reason not to seize them. Unsettling the reader is. after all. part of the the author’s role.
The body of the book speaks. If it speaks, shouldn’t an author be interested in what it has to say?