“The pictures are what made this book so memorable to me. When I finally got my hands on this new copy, re-reading it transported me back to my childhood. Even the colors were spot on in my memory. I could predict each next page even before I turned it. It almost felt more like a moving memory, not just a story. Because reading that book was an experience that hasn’t left me yet.”
This quote is from Molly Kluever, a first-year doctoral student in the English department at UVA, reflecting on the experience of engaging with one of her favorite childhood books – The Monster at the End of this Book. This year’s Praxis Fellows have been thinking a lot recently about digital pedagogy and have developed digital humanities workshops on subjects related to our own research. I was lucky enough to facilitate my workshop while it was under construction with a multi-disciplinary group of students, including Molly, in Professor Peter Ochs’ proseminar in World Religions, World Literatures. I’m grateful for the way that this group’s thoughtful feedback has shaped this workshop and pushed me to think more creatively in my own research. Molly Kluever, Reid Panuzio, Hannah Jane LeDuff, Deborah Ayres-Brown, and Professor Ochs, thank you for sharing your memories, ideas, and enthusiasm with me.
My workshop, “Engaging Books,” is about human relationships with books and, more specifically, how the emotional, tactile, imaginative, and intellectual engagements we have with books can translate in a digital context. The inspiration for this workshop is the subject of my research: late-medieval prayer books called “books of hours,” many of which were owned and used by women, and many of which show signs of being personalized and engaged with in the same ways I engage my favorite books. Because travel is impossible right now and I’ve been looking at books of hours in digital formats lately, I’ve become more curious about ways of translating the experience of interacting with manuscripts into digital formats. I’m also curious about what decisions go into creating online environments for beloved or significant books, and how these decisions reflect values we hold. The materials for this workshop are freely available here: lesson plan and slides.
The workshop has three parts: (1) Re-membering Childhood Books, (2) Displaying Physical Books, and (3) Engaging Digital Books. Part 1 consists of a series of questions about participants’ favorite childhood books that prompt consideration of books as material and visual, as well as textual, objects. Part 2 of the workshop puts participants in the role of museum curators, asking them to think about creative ways to display their favorite childhood books in a museum exhibit. And Part 3 engages participants as digital humanists, asking participants to consider how best to present all aspects of their favorite book in a digital context.
In advance of the workshop, I asked everyone who would be participating to choose one book from their childhood that engaged them or got them excited about reading. During the workshop, due to time constraints, we jumped directly from part 1 to part 3 without much issue. During part 1, I asked participants to write for two minutes in response to questions such as “What kind of spaces were you in while you read your book?” and “If you carried your book around with you or read it multiple times, did it change or become worn over time?” I was taken aback by the vivid memories that participants recalled while writing. For instance, Hannah Jane, an English Master’s student, chose Pat the Bunny – a book of words, textures, and smells – as the subject of her reflection. She recalled the book’s distinct smell, the way the book invited her to touch its textured pages, and even connecting textures in the book to textures around her, like the scruff on her father’s face. Hannah Jane recalled that as she engaged Pat the Bunny, she became immersed in reading for the first time. This experience of being immersed in a book, she reflected during the workshop, is part of what led her to study literature as a graduate student.
Reid, a second-year undergraduate, was able to bring his copy of a childhood favorite, A Discovery of Witches, to the workshop and interact with it as he wrote. In response to questions about material aspects of his book, Reid recalled that its cover and front pages came off over time as he repeatedly crammed the book into an overstuffed backpack. Pen marks in the margins and the texture of worn, soft pages brought him back to reading the book repeatedly during his adolescence. The freewriting questions in Part 1, he said, made him more aware of his connection to his book as a physical object as well as a story that immersed him in a narrative.
Molly’s memories about The Monster at the End of this Book weren’t just about its story or striking images, but also about the relationships, spaces, and performances surrounding the book. In her freewriting, Molly recalled the safety and warmth of her grandparents’ bed as her grandmother read to her. Her grandmother’s theatrical page turning became, in her words, a nightly ritual, and despite this, her grandmother’s enthusiasm and dramatics never dwindled. This performance made Molly feel immersed in the book’s environment – “like I was part of the book.” For Deborah, an English Master’s student, similarly, her mother’s performance – dimmed lights, a flashlight to the face, and spooky voices – immersed her in a book of scary stories.
The thoughtful answers that Hannah Jane, Reid, Molly, and Deborah shared after the freewriting process helped us transition to Part 3, in which we discussed how each person would translate meaningful aspects of their favorite childhood books into digital forms. Reid suggested that A Discovery of Witches would translate well as an immersive, first-person game. He characterized the book as captivating and escapist, and recalled that it made him feel “passionate, excited, and understood.” And while A Discovery of Witches doesn’t include artwork, Reid recalled, the plot involves an enchanted alchemical manuscript whose symbols and formulae are described in detail. It would be impactful to see this manuscript represented visually, he suggested, and a game that allowed players to move through the world and story that the book created would allow users to escape into a familiar and well-worn world just as he had.
Molly recalled that one of the aspects of the performance that her grandmother put on while reading The Monster at the End of this Book was the resistance she created as Molly tried to turn each page. While an illustrated Grover begged Molly not to turn any more pages so that she wouldn’t have to encounter the monster at the end of the book, Molly’s grandmother worked in concert with Grover, making it difficult for Molly to turn the book’s cardboard pages. Molly suggested, then, that there could be built-in resistance for readers as they turn the digital pages of The Monster at the End of this Book. Perhaps, she suggested, readers would have to scroll quickly in order to reach new text and images and continue the dramatic progression to the book’s end.
Hannah Jane was skeptical that a digital format could encompass the textures, smells, and experiences of engaging Pat the Bunny. But this skepticism led to a number of fruitful suggestions from other participants. These included associating particular noises – rather than textures – with objects in the book, or asking the reader to find and touch (or smell) household items that might match those of items described in the book. Deborah raised the experience of attending 4-D movies as a child, where participants were given scratch-and-sniff cards to use at key moments during the film, and wind, water, and rattling theater seats helped immerse the audience. A 4-D Pat the Bunny experience, she suggested, could literally immerse young readers. Professor Ochs suggested that the vibrations of a smart phone might help replicate different textures in Pat the Bunny for a young reader. And Molly added that electronic braille displays might be part of a process of learning to read by touch.
I was concerned before facilitating this workshop that I was asking too much of participants by asking them to select a favorite childhood book and reflect on all the ways they interacted with it. It takes vulnerability to share memories from childhood related to reading, and I’d planned to model vulnerability by sharing my own experiences to ease any tensions that arose. I also worried that not everyone would relate to – or want to reflect on – the experience of getting lost in a book. But I’d hoped that asking participants to take on creative and authoritative roles during the workshop would empower everyone as subject matter experts on their own book. Clearly, I was wrong to worry. I get the sense that the workshop was not just generative and inspiring for me, but that everyone involved enjoyed having time to reflect on meaningful engagements with favorite books, share how those books have shaped who they are, and imagine sharing their experiences with others.
If you decide to lead this workshop, I’d love to hear about how it goes. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.