[ToC]

 

REVIEW

Julian Hibbard, Schematics: a Love Story, Mark Batty Publisher, 2012

[Review Guidelines]

First, let's be clear: Julian Hibbard's Schematics: a Love Story is a lovely artifact of a book. It's a board book, 80 pages, black and white, approximately 4" x 5", with lovely found diagrams verso (on the left-hand pages) and short bits of prose recto (on the right-hand pages). The diagrams are unlabeled except as "fig. 31." Their subjects can be looked up via the appendix, though the actual sources—these are presumably found diagrams—are never revealed. Sometimes the visual object on the verso page connects in obvious visual ways to the prose on the recto page. For instance, fig. 21 ("a sociometric star used as a way of mapping the structures and representing the formal properties of social configurations," as the appendix informs us) shows a network of points all converging on one central point, paired with the recto "Alone. / All one." In this case, the visual doesn't need the appendix context for us to parse the space between image and text. In other spreads understanding the connection, if any, is only understandable via the context/subject of the diagram. In some spreads, there's no connection to be found.

The ambition of Schematics is primarily twofold: the book asks the reader to make connections between verso and recto, image and text, and, by removing the diagrams from context and labeling, and pairing them with the prose bits on the recto pages, to allow the visuals to take on emotional weight, unencumbered by their original uses. Having the diagram titles available in the appendix, though, defeats this last ambition—once we know that the diagram titles are available in the appendix, it's hard to just look at the images themselves and consider their relationship with the recto text. Partly this is because there's not always much to gain in this readerly work, partly because we don't know whether the schematics are the production of the speaker of the text, and partly because we're not sure what to do with them. Some spreads don't reveal any connection at all, so the urge to flip immediately to the appendix is a strong one, since sometimes that helps us make the leap, since the image/text combination isn't doing the work I suspect it's meant to do. Then the appendix seems to have a voice of its own, sometimes explanatory ("Our human ability to understand comes from the awareness of time"), sometimes simply contextualizing ("Cell cycle replication and regulation, in this case for budding yeast"), and other times actively resisting our desire for explanation or exploration ("Random geometric graph", "Table of random digits"). This last irritates, because Schematics asks us to do nontrivial work in assembling and parsing meaning, and in its best moments, the revelation of the source is often another layer of meaning-making complexity. If we do the work of trying to parse the image on its own, and then turn to the appendix for a helping hand, only to find out the image is random, it's hard not to get frustrated.

Another of the book's obvious ambitions is to emphasize and explore language via the prose bits on the recto pages. The interesting pairing of "Alone. / All one." is an example that has a bit of heft & fun to it. Though the book's afterword (an essay on the book by David LaRocca) calls these bits prose, they're not really prose, since they employ line breaks, and are approaching poetry in their spareness and isolation. As lines of poetry, though, they don't all pull their weight. Take, for example, this page's text:

You lay out some newspaper.
We lie on it.
The fairytale music,
drifts through the trees.

The comma after "music" is bizarre, ungrammatical, an irritant: it accomplishes nothing and is in fact wrong. The separation of the two images/lines is already accomplished by the line break. The comma thus appears to be a typo. Then a few pages later we find:

Of all the places,
I am at the center of the world event.
The unstoppable force meets,
the immovable object.

A few pages before this, though, we get:

I want to achieve happiness,
and insight with you.

So this comma thing is an ongoing problem, which, considering these pages contain no more than four lines of text, is a major problem. The misused comma is actually the most interesting thing in the above borderline-cliché phrase. If a book wants to prioritize language and prosody and compression, then those things need to hold up under further inspection. Instead, taken out of context of the images, there's not much here in the text.

Aside from the line-level focus, we never get very much context or connective tissue for the images or text beyond the title ("A Love Story"), so it's hard to read much of a narrative here (there is an arc, I guess, but you have to work for it, and I'm not sure it pays off in any interesting way or really holds up under scrutiny). There's a you, the object of the love suggested in the subtitle, and that's where the energy is working the best, but we never find out much about the quality of the love, the lover, the object of the love, the courtship, the love affair, or what exactly happens between I and you.

So if the text isn't delivering enough, and the images aren't really delivering enough, how about the book as object? One weird feature of the book is that all the type and images are fed through a visual screen of some sort so the effect is one of looking at text and image on an old monochrome computer monitor, in which each character is segmented vertically. I'm not sure how this mimesis works with the book as an object as opposed to a digital text. What it does do is flatten the text and images into one voice, and to temove whatever quirks of production or drawing that the original images might have had for them: certainly a drawing or etching made in 1913 will be aesthetically different than an image made with Mathematica last year. Here they are all about the same, flattened into this visual voice, presumably of the speaker, presumably (again I'm assuming a lot—the book asks us to do this work but doesn't direct us) collected or redrawn or filtered through this digital effect on the page—for the beloved? for the reader? We're not sure. You can see, I hope, how Schematics: a Love Story asks a lot of questions but doesn't go very far in answering them.

You can sense my irritation here, surely. This is because I was prepared to love this book and lavish my affection on it. It's disappointing to see a book with such a cool idea—essaying or narrative via diagrams and paired text, representations of various technical subjects bouncing off prose representations of love and being—fizzle on a closer reading, and for the most part fail as a book. It's disappointing because the production values of the book as object are stellar. There aren't many presses out there willing to go all in with a book like this, so I salute the press, Mark Batty Publisher, for its willingness to publish risky work in this direction. I just wish the work itself was better.

A book that's ambitious in this way simply needs to be better and more thoughtful about itself as a book. Because it asks us as readers to work harder, the text needs to work harder, too.

I'd like to suggest that, particularly for books that ask the reader to do more work to achieve what comics theorist Scott McCloud refers to as "closure" (how in reading comics—a series of static panels—we see an action or scene in one panel, and then another action or scene in another panel, and we perceive motion, relation, narrative), the writer/artist/bookmaker needs to provide us more context, give us more to work with, and both motivate and reward us as readers in different ways.

Schematics asks the reader to work in multiple unusual or maybe experimental ways: (1) we must parse the the contextless images as image, or perhaps guess at its context, or at least look it up in the appendix, trying to attach it to its original meaning, or at least appreciate it as a visual object; (2) we must connect it with the bit of facing text (why does this image go with this text? either in terms of its own apparent visual meaning or its context); (3) we must spend time parsing the text itself, which is often playful, and that text, when it works best, provides us with fresh language or image or thought, and asks us to cogitate a bit ("Memory is a filtering process. / Idea of place linked to memory. / Method of place to improve memory.") and consider it on its own terms and what it might connect to, essay at, or in some cases simply be saying or exploring; (4) we must assemble these bits of isolated text into sequence, narrative, or scene (why does this piece of text come after that piece of text? is this a narrative? what are we seeing? is this a speaker? to whom is s/he speaking? what happened, and when? etc.); (5) we must also assemble the visuals into some kind of sequence; (6) we must parse the book as an object itself (why does it have that digital screen effect? what does it do to a book to evoke a digital screen? how does it feel to read/look at this book in the context of what we know about books and reading?) and consider our own reading/viewing experience.

All this is without even getting into the higher/theoretical levels of reader response and hermeneutical blah blah (not to disrespect the hermeneutical blah blah, but for the writer of image/text texts, sometimes these lower-level reader-work issues are plenty for us to chew on). Any book we write asks certain things of the reader. Adding visuals or abstractions asks more of the reader. If we're asking the reader to do more and more work, we need to consider what we're offering the reader to make that work both more appealing as well as satisfying once she does it. Good readers like work, as long as it gets us somewhere. We like to be rewarded for our work—our interaction, our participation, our imagination—with a text, and we're willing to do it if the work pays off in loveliness or emotion or insight or any other emotional or intellectual response. But if a book promises us that kind of interaction and then doesn't really give us the tools to interact with it, and doesn't seem to have thought through what that means, well, we're going to get pissed.

This is why it's easy to disregard the obviously experimental: we've read enough texts that promise but don't deliver (though what we each individually expect is obviously different). The short version is that Schematics promises, but doesn't deliver, and that's a shame.

It doesn't, however, mean that these ambitions aren't good ideas. They are. The potential payoff is huge. And hopefully Mark Batty will publish books that meet the challenge.

[AM]