Form(at) and Meaning

I’m in the middle of a couple of books. It’s been a slow reading book, both because it was my first full week of the semester and because these aren’t books to be read quickly. Both deal with some difficult subjects (though lightened with humor) and their style is complex. But for both, I had to think about what format I wanted to read in, so here are some musings on what difference format makes. I want to say up front I don’t want to create a hierarchy of formats, suggest ebooks or audiobooks aren’t “real” reading, or anything like that. But format does affect my experience of a book, and I think in some ways my understanding of it, and I’m always interested in pondering that difference and hearing about other people’s experiences.

Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq

Tagaq is a multi-talented artist who has won Canada’s Polaris music prize. I requested the audiobook of Split Tooth, which this profile of Tagaq describes as “a short mythobiography about a teenage girl living in a small Nunavut community in the 1970s,” from my library because the hold list was shortest.

But I was torn. The book is composed of fragments of poetry and prose, and I wondered if I would miss seeing the difference in layout. Plus, it’s illustrated by Jaime Hernandez. (You can see some of the illustrations in the sample on Google Books–cw for violence and sexual abuse). On the other hand, the audiobook is read by the author, and is punctuated by her eerie throat-singing, sometimes high and ethereal, sometimes guttural and hoarse. (She demonstrates the different sounds in this YouTube video, and you can also find some of her music videos there).

Either way, I was going to miss something. And gain something!

In the end (well, I’m not at the end), I don’t regret my choice. I’ve enjoyed hearing the author’s own voice and interpretation of her words, and to connect the emotions of her story to her music. At one point she talks about bearing witness to the lives of girls and women she grew up with (one problem with audiobooks is not being able to quote exactly) and reading this book, which is sometimes very painful, feels like bearing witness. Hearing Tagaq’s voice makes that aspect of the reading more prominent.

At the same time, I always wonder how I might read differently if I weren’t subject to someone else’s pacing and emphasis. And because Split Tooth ranges from dream sequences to more realistic scenes, as well as from poetry and prose, I wish I had a sense of if and how visual layout on the page relates to those differences–are the dreamy, mythic passages more likely to be poetry (I’m not sure Tagaq’s prose is less “poetic,” but those choices of line lengths and breaks do have meaning, and they can’t always be heard).

And usually I don’t like to listen to more “literary” fiction, because I want to be able to slow down or re-read passages–maybe because they’re particularly complex, or contain a striking image or phrasing. I know I miss things when I’m listening. At some point, I’ll probably at least browse a print copy of Split Tooth so I can add the visual elements to my experience of the book.

Milkman, by Anna Burns

2018’s Man Booker winner finally arrived at my library. Right before Christmas. Needless to say, I did not finish it before it had to go back. But I was enjoying it and wanted to keep reading, so I decided to buy a copy. But paper or digital? I was torn.

Much has been said about Milkman’s style: it’s stream of consciousness, written in long, comma-heavy sentences and often very long paragraphs. The wall of text on the page and winding narrative/syntactical paths are part of what make it a (purposefully, I think) slow reading experience. It’s dense, though I’m not finding that a bad thing.

I’ve been reading a lot more print books in the last few years, for a variety of reasons. At my library, the selection of print books is better than digital. And I often prefer print for the literary fiction I’ve been reading more of. It’s hard to describe this, but being able to orient myself physically on the page and in the book (how thick is the part I’ve read vs. the part left to go?) seems to help me make my way through or make sense of what I’m reading. It conveys some kind of meaning to me that percent left in the book doesn’t. I suspect this is just because I grew up as a print reader, and I can’t even say what the “meaning” is. But reading in this format feels “right” for some kinds of books. (There is probably also the fact that paper books do feel less disposable to me, so there is an element of hierarchical judgement–although I hope I don’t snobbishly apply this to other readers’ choices).

But. The print in the paper Milkman is small and my eyes are aging and I need new glasses. I suspected that my slowwww progress through the book was only partly to do with its style, and had something to do with my struggle to physically focus on the words when I was reading before bed. I felt that seeing those walls of text on the page–which would grow and shrink as I played with my ereader’s font and would be less obvious on its smaller page–contributed something meaningful to my experience of middle sister’s narration, the protective wall of words she throws up around myself. Comfort won out over whatever small meaning this adds, though–and I did experience it for about a quarter of the book. It does feel different to read it as an ebook, but I don’t regret this choice either.

I hope before too long I will have more to say about the content of these two excellent books. But their form has proved pretty interesting to me.

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2 Responses to Form(at) and Meaning

  1. Sunita says:

    I love this post! I think a lot about form as well, although since I don’t listen to audiobooks that often anymore I’m mostly choosing between print and ebook formats. I did think hard about getting the Tagaq in audio, though, because of her singing. I looked at the print version in the bookstore and was very tempted, because the layout is beautiful and somehow the starkness of the font and wide margins contrasted with the content really hit me. And that cover!

    I have the same preference for print for literary fiction. Partly it’s seeing the two pages at once (I don’t like reading on tablets at all, so I mostly read ebooks on a Kobo with a 6.8″ screen). And it’s also being able to flip back and reread or check something. It’s just so much easier. That said, I read Milkman as an ebook because I was able to buy it from Kobo when the Booker longlist was announced, and that worked for me. It might have been because the ereader reinforced the wall-of-text feeling and contributed to the immersive experience. But I have seen a lot of GR readers talk about how they loved the audio version; some switched because reading wasn’t working for them but they “got” the book in audio.

  2. Liz Mc2 says:

    I’m fascinated by how format affects our experience and how individual that is from reader to reader. What I find reading Milkman as an ebook is that I’m less aware of the wall of text effect, because that’s normal with a small e-reader page (there often isn’t a visible paragraph break). It does feel a little different but it’s much easier on my eyes and I can concentrate better at night.

    There was clearly a lot of thought behind the design of Split Tooth as a physical book. It’s interesting to think about how the visual space around the words might relate to the often visceral content. I found it really powerful to hear Tagaq’s voice reading her words. I know I’m supposed to have read enough Derrida not to believe that speech is a guarantee of the author’s presence, but . . . it felt so immediate and real!

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