Date of Award

2020

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in English

Department

English

First Advisor

Mary Cappello

Abstract

What is a book? What do we expect to find in books? Who is the twenty-first-century reader? Such questions have proliferated over the last thirty years as the anxiety of the death of the book and the vanishing reader has loomed over literature. In this dissertation, I explore how twenty-first-century American multimodal narrative books featuring intradiegetic readers (a character who reads a story within the storyworld) represent the possibilities and limits of the print book to engage the informed reader in a changing media ecology. The books in this study are not merely testing the limits of how stories can be told but are intimately investigating the form of the book which went mostly unchallenged in twentieth-century popular literature.

By going beyond the conventions of traditional literary print books, Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer (2010), House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000), S. by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams (2013), and Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry (2014) all ask what it means to read a print book at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This has implications for what we expect a book to be, potentially allowing us to be more specific in our definition than was once possible, through understanding what the form of the book can offer a reader beyond current conventions.

These four narratives are not books about books, but they do have something to say about books in our current moment. Importantly, each text tells us that the book is not an object we are meant to “look through” for meaning (treating the form as something that transports knowledge from the writer to the reader without affecting it) or simply another thing we are meant to “consume” (seeing the book as an object the reader uses and discards once the information has been received) but a place for the reader to have an experience with the narrative.

These four books each tell a story that includes a reading character through linguistic text and another semiotic mode, such as visual or spatial elements, also known as multimodality. The characters in these narratives not only read, they read and make a mark on the book that we as empirical readers receive, thus creating the physical object with which we interact through their roles as readers. By showing, and not just telling, how these characters read and interact with books, these projects also indicate how readers and reading are changing as our media choices have changed.

While this type of book is sometimes diagnosed as a symptom or reaction to the death of the book, I read these narratives as exploring how books continue to change to fulfill the needs of the reader. Using the convergence paradigm of complex and networked relationships among forms, I use media-specific analysis through a media studies lens to bring together book history and literary criticism to examine the whole medium of the book, incorporating its physical, textual, and cultural aspects, to discern our changing ideas and expectations of the book in the twenty-first century. Through this analysis, I find that, though books and literature are changing, these changes are a positive response that focuses on what needs books can fulfill, and that the reader is not an endangered species, threatened by changes in the media landscape, but is evolving and chooses to read print books when those books best fulfill their needs.

Available for download on Thursday, March 31, 2022

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