Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Books are Theme Parks

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with theme parks. Not with going to the parks themselves, but finding out how they were put together. Most kids get excited about going to Disney World and doing all the rides. Forget the rides, my dream was taking that special tour of the underground tunnels and seeing how things worked behind the scenes. In graduate school, I got to take a backstage tour of the Mall of America as part of a design research conference. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

I recognize that there is an element of insanity to this obsession. Yes, I am that person who goes to Vegas not for the casinos or the shows, but so I can take photos of doorknobs and floor tiles. The thing that is so fascinating to me about these themed environments is that even though they are blatantly manicured and fake, there is a perverse beauty to it. It's the epitome of control and manipulation, wherein the designers construct an environment that will evoke a certain emotional response or a particular behavior from the audience. This has always made me wonder: how do they do that?

Some of it has to do with physical design of the place. Like, did you know that the bricks on Cinderella's castle are slightly smaller as you go higher up the towers? This creates an illusion of a vanishing point, which your brain interprets by thinking that the towers are taller than they actually are. Or the way casinos are built without clocks or natural light so that people are more likely to lose track of the time. Or how different theme parks handle crowd control--the most successful rides are always the ones where standing in line becomes part of the themed experience.

What does this have to do with books and writing, you may ask? Today, as I was reviewing Louis Sachar's Holes it suddenly hit me: books are theme parks. In the case of Holes, the structure of the story is literally all about holes. As we read, we have to dig/fill holes in the narrative with snippets of other stories--mostly flashbacks. It makes the reader become like one of the kids in the story. Holes is not a book; it's an experience.

But books aren't just about the words on the page. Though the words do have a lot to do with eliciting specific responses from the readers, the actual book as an object is also part of the experience. My copy of the Fagles translation of the Odyssey is all about the experience. It's a soft-cover book, but the paper is a cream color and it has a deckle edge. I pick up this book and it feels epic to me, before I've even opened it. These are minor design-related choices, but some books go even further to create the reading experience. Take Casts Off by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (AKA the Yarn Harlot). In this book, the actual graphic design of the pages helps transport readers to the land of knitting.

Of course, I realize that if I ever publish something, most of these design decisions will be out of my control. Even so, it is satisfying to think about all these possibilities. More importantly, I think it's important to focus on the aspects we can control and how we, as writers, can make reading more than just an activity. We can make it an adventure.

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