CommandREAD: The Raw Shark Texts

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We are so excited to welcome PSU Professor Matt Livengood and his introductory installment of what we hope will be a regular feature on Command Save. CommandREAD will showcase Matt's musings on the books and articles that he has been reading. He thinks you should read them too.

His first entry focuses on The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall! On with the show!

Rawshark

When it comes to reading, I tend to prefer non-fiction. I really enjoy learning about the world we're in via the words of a writer who uses his or her actual experiences, discoveries, and ideas to share observations and to offer new insight. Good non-fiction provides this, certainly. However, excellent works of fiction also can make such offerings to the reader, shedding new light on what and who and how we are. Whereas non-fiction strives to inform us through objective means, the best examples of fiction teach us about our humanness by repackaging the experiences of being alive in more artful ways. And, truthfully, when you find yourself in the midst of a really good story, the ride is like nothing that can be found in factual discussions.

THE RAW SHARK TEXTS, by Steven Hall (Cannongate, 2007), is the most recent book I've finished, and it does everything — and maybe more — that I'd want a work of fiction to do. It was recommended to me by a good friend (thanks, Penn) and as soon as I read the teaser on the back cover, I knew that — at the very least — I'd enjoy the premise:

A man wakes up on the floor of a room, not knowing who he is or where he is or how long he's been there. There's a note. He reads it.

"Eric,

First things first, stay calm.

If you are reading this, I'm not around anymore. Take the phone and speed dial 1. Tell the woman who answers that you are Eric Sanderson. The woman is Dr Randle. She'll understand what has happened and you will be able to see her straight away. Take the car keys and drive the yellow Jeep to Dr Randle's house. If you haven't found it yet, there's a map in the envelope — it isn't too far and it's not hard to find.

Dr Randle will be able to answer all your questions. It's very important that you go straight away. Do not pass go. Do not explore. Do not collect two hundred pounds.

The house keys are hanging from a nail on the banister at the bottom of the stairs. Don't forget them.

With regret and also hope,

The First Eric Sanderson."

So Eric begins the process of figuring out… WTF, basically, and the situation quickly gets more interesting. Letters from Eric to Eric start appearing regularly in the post. He's instructed to memorize a list of personal facts from some stranger's life for use "in case of an emergency." There's a locked door in his flat, to which he has no key. And then one night, after months of trying to reconstruct some semblance of a routine, normal life, there's an… uhh…  'incident' that occurs in his flat which is just plain bizarre. And disconcerting. And terrifying.

Okay, so amnesia is nothing novel as far as story-telling tropes are concerned. We've all seen "Memento." And there's no shortage of mysterious, suspenseful plot lines out there. So, why am I writing about this book on this site?

I'm glad you asked.

Anyone who is turned on by the exploration of smart and well-developed concepts, anyone with an interest in typography, anyone who would like the experience of being affected not only by the plot of a book but also by the DESIGN of a book should read this one.

The conceptual foundations here are remarkable and seductive. It becomes quite clear relatively early into the story that this is an examination of the nature of ideas (wink, wink: there's a pun in that last phrase). It's a playfully smart consideration of how thoughts and words are so very potent that they might be — in and of themselves — generative, alluring, and dangerous.

Many of the key issues explored in visual art and design classes actually become important features of the story: narrative, pace, tone, scale and depth, form as content, etc. The use of visual devices as integral components to the story is clever and well-executed. Expressive typography, rule lines, blank spaces are exploited to the degree that they aren't simple motifs, but are instead moments, places, even characters within the story. These devices could easily become contrived, but the author and book designer successfully avoid being stupid about it all, mainly by remaining ever-aware that "The Raw Shark Texts" is not a comic book or graphic novel. The confines of book design are challenged, yes, but they're also maintained as a defined arena or genre, within which there are formal rules to be acknowledged. It was rewarding and not-too-surprising to learn from the author's bio that he was a fine art student (at Sheffeld Hallum University, UK). Cheers to THAT.

Any work of fiction that uses typography so intelligently is worth recommending, I feel, to an audience of designers. Any fictional book in which the word "signifier" appears is going to be automatically interesting to me. In my design classes, I tend to speak a lot about the connotations and collective associations of signifiers, but the ways in which this story explores certain conceptual ramifications of the teeming, swarming tendencies of signification is just brilliant. Brilliant.

At 428 pages, "The Raw Shark Texts" is lengthy enough to last a good while, but not intimidatingly long or dense. As busy as we all become during the school year with required readings for classes and seminars, it can be a challenge to find time to read anything else. But this book might serve as just the right kind of healthy distraction from whatever you're currently reading and making. So, if you're looking for something fun and smart to read that's also complementary to the themes and issues we tend to cover in design school, consider reading this book. But when turning the pages, do be very careful not to flip ahead accidentally; there are things set loose out there for which you are not properly equipped. Dangerous things. Sharp things.
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