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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Faux Fun

Message Found In a Bottle

The idea that a book pretends to be an artifact is hardly new. Poe’s story ends with this note,

"Note.-The ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’, was originally published in 1831; and it was not until many years afterwards that I became acquainted with the maps of Mercator, in which the ocean is represented as rushing, by four mouths, into the (northern) Polar Gulf, to be absorbed into the bowels of the earth; the Pole itself being represented by a black rock, towering to a prodigious height." 

That is perfect — it is in key with the tone established by the supposed message, but, with a wink and nod also "explains" to the reader the conceit behind the fiction. If we printed on paper that looked aged, weathered by salt water and time, with photoshopped ink blotches, maybe some creeping green to suggest mold, and then, on the reverse, a handy Mercator projection in an 1831 style with appropriate political boundaries, we could print it today. In fact we could sell it as a scroll, rolled up in a bottle, so that it would stand out on a chain bookstore shelf, or could be sold in non-bookstore outlets such as toy stores.

Faux books are fun, and the power of design programs such as Photoshop or InDesign makes it relatively easy for a skilled designer to treat every inch of a book, from the jacket and case to the margins and gutter as a canvas. The designer is not limited to the old square where we used to plunk black type on white paper facing rectangular images. Any space is a design space — so we can really age paper, layer objects on top of textured paper — so a book feels like an old scrapbook or album, we can add in faux stamps, torn-off newspapers, smudged fingerprints — and in all those ways make a book into a kind of theme park, an adventure in which there are always more surprises, more bits to discover. 

In other words, the book is not merely a vehicle for delivering words and static images — the digital readers that Amazon, Sony, and others are eagerly hawking can do that. A book is an object whose design expresses and enhances its content. Great!

Our obligation as adults, though, is to give both young readers and the parents/teachers/librarians who work with them a pathway through the theme park. We can include a note, as Poe did, that both extends the game and gives it away. We must define what in the book is actually of the era we are discussing, and what is the product of our designer’s wit and imagination. We must offer a road map. And we must be diligent. For example, the book I’m working on is set in 1848-9. We wanted to show a New England farm that our gold-bedazzled heroes were leaving, to seek their fortunes. There are many Currier & Ives images of snowy farms — dating from the 1860s. It took contacting an expert to find that barn styles in New England changed significantly in the 1850s, so the C&I, while pretty and available, was wrong. We can make a faux book, but it must be true to its own rules.

More during or after the holidays.