Anne Carson’s Nox is one of the strangest, most beautiful, most human books I’ve ever seen. It’s an elegy to her brother Michael, who died in 2000 and from whom she’d been almost completely estranged since 1978. After he died, Carson created a notebook—what she called an “epitaph”—that recorded her brother’s life and her own mourning. I’ll let Meghan O’Rourke describe it to you (because she was the first person to describe it to me):
“Nox” is as much an artifact as a piece of writing. The contents arrive not between two covers but in a box about the size of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Inside is an accordion-style, full-color reproduction of the notebook, which incorporates pasted-in photographs, poems, collages, paintings, and a letter Michael once wrote home, along with fragments typed by Carson. The reproduction is done painstakingly, and conjures up an almost tactile sense of the handmade original. A mourner is always searching for traces of the lost one, and traces of that scrapbook’s physicality—bits of handwriting, stamps, stains—add testimonial force: this person existed.
Translation, the act of renaming, is clearly crucial to Carson’s method of coming to grips with loss. The first page is a yellowing, blurred poem in Latin: Catullus’ poem 101, an elegy for his brother, who also died on a distant shore. . . . Most of the left-hand pages that follow are given over to lexicographical entries, defining each word of the Catullus elegy. The right-hand pages meditate on the difficulty of elegizing a brother who had disappeared from Carson’s life long before his death.
It’s a book about process—the process of grieving and the process of translation. Something about reading Nox feels a little intrusive, like reading someone’s very private diary. But on the other hand, it also feels like Anne Carson is letting you check out the inside of her brain and look at the way her personal grief dovetails with her work as a poet and translator.
Here’s her translation of Catullus 101. Read Nox to understand how this one specific person, Anne Carson, got to this specific rendering of this poem.
Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed—
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this—what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials—
accept soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.
I would have LOVED this book if it had been around when I was in middle school. I was one of those thirteen-year-olds who was really into guided journaling (and unguided journaling, too, but I found that sometimes a little structure really got the creative juices flowing), and this book takes that concept to a whole new level. It’s not even really journaling, honestly. It’s more like guided mayhem. Which might be even better.
If you tried to make Wreck This Journal
into an ebook, it’d be the last time you used your ereading device. Because, at least as far as I know, there is no ereader that can survive being chewed on, scribbled on, scratched, dropped from great heights, or used as a surface on which to collect dead bugs. And that’s just a fraction of what you get to do to this thing. Jump on it. Bring it in the shower with you. Tie a string to it and drag it along on a walk. Tear out pages and give them away, or lose them. Turn them into balls, funnels, paper airplanes, paper chains.
In other words, give in to your destructive impulses and watch them turn into creative ones.
I was having trouble deciding whether to include Herve Tullet’s Press Here this month. Does it count as interactive? There’s nothing weird about it production-wise. You don’t have to put it together or unfold it or lift flaps or anything like that to make it work. It’s just pages bound together with a regular spine and a regular cover.
But you can’t really get away with just turning the pages either. Here’s the concept: you open the book to the first page. It looks like this:
You’re a good reader. You listen to books when they tell you to do something. So you press there and you turn the page and…
How did that second yellow dot get there?! You did it. You made that yellow dot appear. And you can make more things happen if you press on (get it?!??? knee slapper).
Every page has a new instruction—press! shake! blow! tilt!—and every time you, the reader, follow the instructions, you make the picture that appears on the next page happen. Here’s the book trailer, so you can see it in action with some very excited four-year-olds:
So yeah. I think this codex counts as interactive. It’s a brilliant reminder that readers make books happen.
The first time I encountered Joe Sacco was in his brilliant book Palestine, a work of “comics journalism” (his term, and an accurate one) about his experience reporting from the West Bank and Gaza during the First Intifada. Sacco has also produced books about his reporting in the Balkans and around the world (that last gathers pieces he produced as real-time reporting, including his series on the Iraq War originally published in the Guardian).
So like, all of this is to say, if you don’t know who Joe Sacco is, get on that shit.
But to the topic at hand. The day Joe Sacco’s The Great War arrived in the bookstore, I squeed the biggest squee anyone has ever squeed about trench warfare.
Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, The Great War is 24-foot-long image of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It comes in a slipcase (we’re going to get very familiar with slipcases this month) and folds out like an accordion. You can flip the pages like a book in order to focus on the details of the drawing
or you can unfold the whole thing for a sense of the scale of that day.
You’ll probably need a second (or third) pair of hands if you go that route.
I just think everything about this is perfect: the way the size and shape of the book capture the size and shape of the battle, the drawing’s roots in art history, the human details (which is always my favorite thing about Sacco’s work). The main act is definitely the drawing, but the book comes with annotations to the image by Sacco and an essay on the Battle of the Somme by Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars.
Also! The drawing was installed as mural in the Montparnasse station of the Paris Metro last July. So if you’re in France, you can go see it and its size can oppress you even further.
It’s right there in the title: I haven’t actually read this book. I mean, sure, I’ve read bits and pieces. I’ve perused. I’ve spent A LOT of time just looking at it. But if someone were to straight out ask me, I’d tell them what I just told you. Nope.
You’re probably wondering what I’m doing recommending a book I haven’t read. But that’s the beauty of this book, literally–you don’t have to have read it (or at least not all of it) to love it. It’s a collaboration between J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst that takes the whole concept of “book within a book” to a whole new level. The project is called S, and it comes in a cardboard slipcase with author bios and publisher copy and all that on the back, but when you slide it out of the case, you discover that the book itself is called The Ship of Theseus, and it’s designed to look like an ancient, yellowing library book, complete with a Dewey Decimal sticker on the spine and date stamps in the back.
That’s only the beginning. The design and manufacturing work that went into this thing blows my mind. Open it up and you’ll find pages absolutely teeming with marginalia–two distinct hands underlining, circling, and conversing in the margins. These notes tell a story of their own, as do the many, many additional artifacts tucked away within the pages, from postcards and letters to newspaper clippings and maps sketched on napkins. Stories within stories within stories, and it’s up to us, the readers, to decide how we want to go about experiencing them.
So, yes, I’m not in any way an S authority. But I’ve spent enough time with it to tell you that it’s worth having on your shelves even if you never get up the courage to actually read it from start to finish (if that’s even possible). It’s one of the most beautiful and impressive objects I own.
There’s a lot of argument these days about whether it matters how you read. Everybody has an opinion—there’s the ereaders camp, the physical books camp, the “I don’t care just give ‘em to me” camp, and all sorts of other permutations. We at Read Five are not here to judge (unless you’re using a Kindle). But the fact remains that some books just require a physical form because form is part their narrative. These books were designed to be objects that readers need to interact with to experience the story. They are, as we’ve unceremoniously dubbed them, books you can do.
This’ll all become clearer when we start actually posting, but for now, just think of a physical “Choose Your Own Adventure.”