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July 12, 2007

On Structure

As alluded to in the last post, one of the things I find most interesting about Pick Me Up is its (pseudo?) hypertextual structure.

Although themed into rough encyclopedic categories of society, people, science, nature, etc, if you read the book cover to cover it flicks between these, ‘shufflepedia’ style. What is more, underlined words denote topics you can look up elsewhere in the book (not just to a glossary, textbook style, but via the index to pretty loosely related other topics - the idea is to lock you into surfing through the book, as you would wikipedia). This is part of its approach to knowledge, which argues that everything is connected.

One of the theoretical pieces I’ve used a lot in my research is an article by Ron Curtis which argues that the ‘closure’ of narrative structure forces science stories into false conclusions. Curtis argues science opens up questions rather than closing them with answers, it runs in a constant 'ebb and flow' of ideas, not to a neat happily-ever-after of a singular conclusion.

Pick Me Up is not the only book to try to get around the constrictions of traditional structures (be they narrative, or as with encyclopedias, more thematic) to produce a more naturalistic 'ebb and flow'. Today, I happened to pick up another children’s science book that does similar thing, through the very traditional device of the footnote - Why is Snot Green, by Glenn Murphy. Some examples:

another footnote

yet another footnote

yes, it's another footnote

yes I'm collecting footnotes

a footnote

There aren't all the footnotes in the book (it's littered with them) just a semi-random selection. Notably, Murphy's references tend not to be a simple ‘see also’, but a way of sparking interest in another topic or a way of explaining in more detail. They tend to have a lot more context than the Pick Me Up ones. Generally, Murphy's book takes a conversational approach to structure, based around questions Murphy suggests we ask (or should ask) about science, sometimes questions spin off each other, eg (also from page 48 of the book):

conversations in text

I wonder at what point in writing Murphy decided to fracture his narrative so, and I wonder if Curtis is right - is there something about science writing that works against the closure of traditional storytelling? (see this post for a different perspective on a similar topic).

July 2, 2007

Pick Me Up

I've been meaning to do an entry on this book for ages, but frankly it's just so rich I had trouble working out how on earth to condense it into a sensibly sized blog post. So I've taken the wimp's way out and am going to do a whistle-stop tour.

Let me introduce Pick Me Up, from everyone's favourite non-fiction publishers; DK. It's a sort of encyclopedia aimed at teenagers. Except it's not a standard encyclopedia. Structurally and visually influenced by commercial and digital culture, one press release memorably described it as a 'shufflepedia'.

The cover appeals to a sense of a book as a desirable design object (or even toy) as much as anything literary. A big, heavy box-shaped hardback, the cover contains a plastic ridged optical illusion, changing its image as you change the angle you view it at (perhaps alluding to the dynamism of a flickering computer window)

pickmeup cover

Unlike the Eyewitness Guides, which sell themselves on a pretty old fashioned (or timeless) quality, this is expressively 21st century and youth orientated. Pick Me Up has it's own rhetoric of timelessness going on too though, though its historical allusions tend to be a bit more recent that the Enlightenment values of Eyewitness. They balance the digital culture images (such as the one on the cover) with a range of mid-20th imagery (often from commercial culture, interestingly). For example:

pickmeup p8-9

References to digital culture are sometimes anachronistically humorous, as with this 'Weblog of a Viking'. Such a device is used widely in Horrible Histories and Horrible Science, but it is noticeable that these books tend to use a 'dairy of a viking' set up instead; the Horribles would never reference anything so contemporary.

pickmeup anachronistic blog feature (p64)

The allusions to digital culture come down to a very structural level, as the whole book is organised around a very hypertextual sense of 'the link' (unlike DK's previous attempts at co-opting rhetorics of online knowledge, which didn't seem to understand what links were). Pick Me Up's 'shufflepedia' approach swaps you incongruously from subject to subject , with words in text sometimes in bold (like a html link) which it suggests you look up in the index to find out more. It actually requires a users guide at the start of the book (I'm really not sure this application of digital culture works, but its fascinating to see it attempted):

pickmeup user instructions (p4)

Very much children's non-fiction as a glossy magazine to flip through. This hypertextual approach reflects the philosophy of knowledge embodied by the book (it starts with the words 'everything is connected') and also adds to the very playful style.

pickmeup democracy game (p194)

It's really hard to describe this book in something as static as a blog entry. Go 'pick up' a copy and have a a browse in a bookstore. It's a crazy, fascinating approach to non-fiction (though in it's own way, not especially new in any way). I'd would love to hear what anyone has to say about it.

July 1, 2007

A cartoon archive for rainy day surfing

In light of all the wet weather we've been having, I thought I'd be topical in referring you to the sewage page of Tim Hunkin's web-based cartoon encyclopaedia.

Hunkin's scrawled instructional cartoons appeared for 14 years in the Observer… hmm, they seem familiar for some reason… I wonder if Tony de Saulles grew up on these?

Thanks to Robert for the link!