Remembering why we love books

The tale of a 12-year-old map-obsessed genius may point the way forward for publishers

Remembering why we love booksNo greater worry smoulders under the surface of publishing today than its existential question: what will the book of the future look like—will it, in fact, look like a book at all? E-book sales are the fastest-growing segment in publishing, and will be worth $1 billion a year in the U.S. within four years, according to industry observers. Even so, consumers so far exhibit some reluctance toward taking on the initial expense of an e-reader. Perhaps then it will be e-reading software for cellphones—which most of us already own—that will prove the tipping point in changing writing’s delivery vehicle, even if that experience is less pleasing to the eye than reading on a dedicated platform. Or will the future be publishing on demand, of the sort provided by the Espresso Book Machine? That ungainly device, a kind of book ATM, carries half a million titles, and can print and bind a copy of Crime and Punishment in nine minutes.

Or maybe everyone should just take a Valium. A book is a pretty ingenious piece of technology itself, far better able to cope with spilled drinks, filled bathtubs and beach sand than any electronic gadget. And they are, or at least can be, beautiful. We have a history with them, a centuries-old love affair with books in all their glorious touch, texture and smell. Maybe books can still seize the future by moving backwards, to the illustrated volumes they once were, by becoming, in effect, more bookish.

That idea is certainly a large part of the buzz swirling around Reif Larsen’s debut novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Penguin). The physical volume is a standard 23.5 cm tall, but it’s almost four centimetres wider than the usual 16 cm, to leave margin room for Larsen’s protagonist to express himself. Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, 12, is a cartographer of genius, given to capturing in topographical or diagrammatic form everything from the location of every McDonald’s in North Dakota to the timing and sound pattern of gunshots, including the one that accidentally killed his 10-year-old brother, Layton.

When T.S. leaves his grief-stricken family ranch near Divide, Mont., to hop a freight train to his spiritual home in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, he naturally documents his journey and his memories, creating maps that are beautifully rendered along the edges of The Selected Works. Small wonder that, as one American book blogger put it, excitement about the novel grew in the book trade, “the more people saw it, rather than the more they read it.” But the illustrations aren’t the sole stars of the book, or a marketing gimmick for a mediocre novel—The Selected Works is a wonderful piece of writing. And, with its text and marginalia seamlessly intertwined, it’s also a seductive book: a tactile, 3-D delight.

The margin drawings were not even Larsen’s first choice to express what he calls T.S.’s “digressions.” The unassuming American author, 29, says he wrote the story in the usual way, “but at the end I knew something was missing.” Eventually he realized “T.S. would have considered the topography of the page, the way we remember where something is in a book by recalling that it’s on, say, the upper left side of a page.” Larsen ended up with far more illustrations than he could use—T.S. is a very digressive child—so he cut those that were “too illustrative, too one-on-one with the text; besides, the empty spaces say things too.” But the subtle meld of text and margin meant Larsen could also cut words. “That diagram of conversational flows at the Spivet dinner table? Once I had it I was able to remove an entire page of writing.”

For most writers, using new media to communicate directly with readers is now standard practice—novelist Chuck Palahniuk, for instance, has 228,640 Twitter followers—but Larsen believes the future of books will turn on how books themselves, not writers, “talk to the media around them.” So, beyond the old-fashioned marginalia, he told Penguin that he “wanted a website unlike any other, one with stuff chopped from the book—like the matter of who really wrote T.S.’s story—hidden in videos and in other places on the site. If I had done this as an afterword in the book, it would have been my conclusion: now readers can go and find their own answers.”

But other media will have to talk to books too, Larsen says. “My novel won’t go on Kindle. It’s a bookish book, and it needs the full geography of an open-page spread. Any future e-book will have to offer that full-page spread too, if it’s ever going to match a real book.”