At GIDEST, we had the pleasure of listening to Lauren Redniss describe her work. I was asked to give a response.
There have been few moments of respite in the last couple of weeks, but one of them for me has been immersion in the worlds Lauren has created in her three books.
To begin with the obvious: the books re-make adult reading by bringing back the wonder of the encounter with books as a child. It is sensory again: there are multiple elements to hold together—words and images on the page, but also weight of the book, texture of the page, design of the different parts. The weight, size, and hard edges of the books seems to be a rebuke to books as digital files, ciphers on a screen, virtual thoughts. Her books are an art of book-making in addition to all else, a renewal of reading as bound to material, or material as (at least part of the) message. You sit with a book that needs to be cradled, heavy on your lap, sinking eyes into pages on which your fingertips soften. These books make reading sensual again. It is object to fondle as much as ideas to consider.
The package is inviting but I continued reading because of what Lauren has called “drawing with words and writing with images.” Or, in a definition more prose than poem, visual nonfiction. I appreciated this prosaic term as I was conditioned to think of the genre as graphic novels and, immediately upon entering the world of these books, that term did not capture enough. They are graphic in the use of images and a novel in their innovative conception, narrative, and design but the first two books, in particular, I was delighted to discover, are histories. The first, Century Girl, tells the tale of Doris Eaton Travis, a long-living legend of the Ziegfeld Follies who started a franchise of Arthur Murray studios, completed her BA degree at age 88, and lived the last decades of her life on an Oklahoma horse farm. It’s a tale about the opportunities and limits for women in the 20th century—dance is both—and the fortitude required in facing family misfortune, economic depression, and loss. This is conveyed in the words themselves, the story told, but even more in the collage of images. Each page features hand-written text (I believe) with some words bigger and bolder, others faint and curved toward the edge of the page. There are also cut-outs of photographs, newspaper headlines and reviews, hand-drawn people, birds, skylines. As a historian, I delighted in the vivid display of disparate sources – the rendering of how to tell a story from all sorts of bits. And as someone who writes about dance, I loved the movement on the page. For one brief shining moment in graduate school, I contemplated doing my dissertation on Arthur Murray because I was fascinated by the idea of learning dance by mail order. What does it mean to convey bodily movement in sync with sound via footprints and words on a page that arrives in your mailbox? The headiness of that, though, is not really the primary story of Arthur Murray. As Lauren registers, his was a business innovation rather than an epistemological one: he invented the idea of franchises. So Doris Eaton Travis dances from the stage into business.
Century Girl makes visible a richly-lived life of someone’s grandmother, or the often unknown vibrant and exciting past of an elderly neighbor. Radioactive, Lauren’s second book, tackles larger-than-life people of the past, the scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. She begins with an apology to Marie Curie who, in defense of her scientific achievements being undermined by love in the lab, said “There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.” As in work and life, in word and image: Lauren shows us the intertwining. Secrets of love affairs are posed alongside secrets of state. This book features less collage and more original pictures; text in an originally-made typeface rather than handwritten. But the word descriptions of chemical processes of radioactivity are played out in images made by cyanotype printing, an intricate process of chemicals, paper, glass, and sunlight, which results in a kind of fuzzy glow of color and line. Lauren chose this process because it worked on exposure, as did the Curies’ discovery of x-ray and radioactivity. For me, the book expanded a poem of Adrienne Rich’s on Marie Curie called Power. The poem describes Curie suffering from radiation sickness, ending, “She died /a famous woman/ denying/ her wounds/ denying/ her wounds/ came/ from the same source as her power.” Radioactivity-the-book again makes that idea material, makes the content in form, by the intertwining of love and work, passion and curiosity, secrecy and exposure, drawing and words, and the possibility and destruction of power.
Thunder & Lightning is a departure from these two books in ambition and scope. It does not rely on one personal or historical narrative but many smaller ones, and it angles up to an urgent political issue. Many have observed that the scale and time-scape of climate change inhibits our ability to understand it and thus act on reversing it. We have the data but lack the imagination to see the problem in its vastness and consequence. Lauren, I think, is trying to provide that, bound, again, to page and paper, but using drawings and words to see the coming world. So not “climate change”—the political handball and patterns of weather on a large scale—but thunder, lightning, cold, rain, fog, wind. Here, again, a newly made typeface conveys the words of science, data, and stories of people living in weather. And the typeface is called Qaneq LR for the Inuktitut word for “falling snow.” The images pull from an art historical tradition in representing nature by distorting scale, perspective, color, and light in an attempt to call attention to specific information. The prints were made in black and white and then colored by hand individually.
One of the ways in which to explain the effect of drawing with words and writing with images is that it comes from their juxtaposition. Readers of nonfiction might encounter a photograph in support of an idea described in words but not usually in place of it. This juxtaposition pulls us away from an either-or sense of knowing–either words or images–and presents a both. But rather than juxtaposition I think the power comes more precisely from rhythm. I am very late to the party celebrating Ursula Le Guin, as I am not a reader of science fiction. But I’ve been reading her nonfiction essays alongside Lauren’s books and was taken by her focus in writing on rhythm. There is a back-and-forth rhythm to going from text to image to text in Lauren’s books, which could be described as the experience of juxtaposition. There is also a non-linearity in time, putting a historic episode next to a present one and then on to a different era of the past. But Le Guin expands on Virginia Woolf’s notion that rhythm in writing creates a sight, an emotion, a “wave in the mind.” This best describes my encounter with the chapter “Sky” in Thunder & Lightning. Immediately following the chapter “Heat,” with its white type on deep black pages and orange-red images of fire, are pages and pages of clouds, in varying shapes, a saturation of blue, then yellow-green streaks, bands of red-purple-orange. From “Sky,” it is on to attempts to control weather for profit and war. “Sky” was not just juxtaposition but pause, respite, renewal–a wave, felt because of image rather than pointed out by words.
To meander for a moment: I’ve been thinking about our predilection to put social in front of everything here (too much time spent writing a Faculty Handbook Supplement and lectures on the history of TNS). Social research, social practice, social innovation, social thought. Are these things inherently asocial? Or non-social? I don’t think so. But perhaps our insistence on their sociality is to remind us of the real if ideal outcome of research, practice, innovation, and thought—to know ourselves with others. I wonder if this is analogous to the category of visual nonfiction that Lauren’s books are creating and defining. That label is an insistence on the materiality and articulation of ideas in big beautiful books as full of pictures as words. To know our world is to see it, to see is to know–and this is exactly what Lauren’s books do.