Pushing the Envelope: A Look at Books with Unique Formats

Books were one of the primary forms of entertainment before the advent of modern technology and such tantalizing distractions as television and social media. Now, they must complete with our glowing screens and work harder for the attention of an audience that, quite frankly, has a shorter attention span, accustomed these days to instant gratification. Over the years, books innovated to suit the needs of their changing readership, taking on new, more engaging forms. EBooks and audiobooks emerged to appeal to our fascination with technology and desire for on-the-go entertainment, making reading an overall more convenient activity. This innovation, however, does not compare to the leaps and bounds taken by digital entertainment, with many of the most creative book forms excluding adult readers and coming out before the turn of the century.

I first became interested in this topic while perusing a box of old books in my room—forgotten relics of my middle school years—when I happened upon my collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Containing an impressive 184 books in the original set, the Choose Your Own Adventure series was published in the late 1970’s through the late ‘90’s. Designed for elementary and middle school-aged children, these were a book and a game combined into one. Each book inserted the reader as the main character though the series’ distinguished second person narration. At various points, the story—often about some grand adventure through the Amazon or snowy mountains or other, similarly treacherous settings—would pause and ask the reader to decide the main character’s next course of action by selecting from a two or three option list. Sometimes, the reader reached a glorious ending. Other times, a premature demise.

This series was unique in how it delegated power to the reader. The ending wasn’t something merely discovered through hours of tedious reading, but it was something attained—something earned—through the reader’s active choices. Choose Your Own Adventure proved to be a much more engaging and fast-paced way to read and interact with literature, which was certain to appeal to the books’ young (and most likely easily bored) audience.

Years later, choose your own adventure video games and visual novels replaced this beloved series, which was probably a true gift to the parents of the ‘80’s. Hopefully the original books are not forgotten, as they are definitely interesting enough to encourage reading among the more stubborn members of this generation.

The Dear America series was another one I adored as a middle schooler. Also a product of the late 1900’s, this series—a collection of historical fiction books written as diaries from the perspectives of various young women—started in 1996. Reading someone’s diary (though fictional) felt deeply personal to me and allowed me to connect with the characters and historical events in profound way, almost as if they were real. These books were more palatable than a conventional novel, as the diary entry structure was quicker and easier to read than long chapters, and the characters read like living people I could befriend.

The diary format, however—also made famous by the incredibly popular series Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which combines diary entries with illustrations—is relatively well known these days. One could also recommend graphic novels for kids who are particularly unenthused about reading, but I was surprised by how few recently published books have truly creative forms. And the realm of adult books is even worse.  

Of course, there has been innovation. I happened upon such interesting titles as Ship of Theseus by J.J. Abrams, which, while structured like a conventional novel, also contains “notes scribbled in the margins, postcards, newspaper clippings, and letters hidden between the pages.”1 Marisha Pessl’s Night Film employs similar devices, dispersing articles and webpages throughout the narration. Books like this are especially enjoyable due to their element of realism, just like diary books. Every article, letter, and picture seem like tangible proof that the story is of our world, something real with existing traces that can be perceived, held, and followed. Along with this, they have a voyeuristic appeal; the reader gets to experience candid evidence firsthand as an outsider, an invasive look into the characters’ lives and world. I will admit, I love these types of books. They are just more fun than conventional novels, almost like picture books for adults. 

The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan is another novel that breaks away from conventional form. A romance story, The Lover’s Dictionary is told entirely through dictionary entries1, which sounds so unique, fascinating, and postmodern, I might have to check this one out for myself at some point.

But many postmodern authors from the 1940’s onwards have played similarly with form, deconstructing the very essence of what a book is. Naked Lunch by beat writer William S. Burroughs is comprised of chapters so disunited and confusing, they can be read in any order. This book—basically an abstract painting in text—was published in 1959. This kind of writer’s play is not new, though hopefully unique books continue to sprout from it for years to come.

I do not fear for books. They are still being read, bought, and written. However, as video games, social media, and streaming services crowd out other forms of entertainment, something must draw people’s eyes back to books. I hope new writers emerge who continue to push the envelope in both children and adult literature, creating new ways for people to connect with books and maybe fall in love with reading in the process.

  1. Melissa Baron. “7 Books With Unusual and Unconventional Formats.” Feb 11, 2018. https://bookriot.com/7-books-unusual-unconventional-formats/

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