Reading as Jekyll and Hyde: Exploring Layout with A Book for Two

A Book for Two takes the oral traditions of storytelling and places them firmly within the age of digital content by creating what they refer to as ‘shared reading experiences’. Reading is traditionally an intimate act, excluding other people and discounting real time and space. Walter Benjamin referred to novel readers as ‘isolated’ [1] but with this concept, this is no longer the case.

In re-designing a classic novel, A Book for Two gives readers an active role and brings the role of narrator, as well as reader, to the foreground. A Book for Two encourages and facilitates the practice of reading aloud through format-appropriate reading, and the designers purposefully made the book difficult to be read alone. The first book they have chosen to enhance is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, an apt choice for a book that is spliced and read by two people. Every part of A Book for Two – from the typographic treatment to the format – comes back to the primary theme of duality.

A Book for Two came about when London based designer Soofiya Chaudry started to consider sharing in the digital age – we tweet our train journeys and Instagram our lunch so why should reading not be a shared experience as well? The designers began to explore how texts could be interactive and were inspired by Visual Editions ‘Composition No.1’ [2] which is printed entirely as separate pages and so can be read in any order. Through various design processes, including experimenting with readers reading each word or line alternately, or even splitting each page in half and asking the readers to abruptly end a line halfway through, A Book for Two came to find a way of displaying the text so that the medium was shared, as well as the story. Because of the scale of the layout, only the final chapter of the novel is used but this doesn’t make the book any less effective.

The layout of the book itself looks like a script, again drawing attention to the performative, and almost theatrical, way of reading the story. A4 pages are bound with a double spine at the top of the page – blue for one reader and yellow for the other – and each reader has to flip over to see their part of the text (printed in black for your part, and in a lighter grey scale for your partner’s paragraphs). The readers are required to sit opposite one another in order for the pages to be flipped out and read. The text is laid out in a simple serif font, Caslon, which the designers felt gave the book a ‘wonderfully delicate feel’ appropriate to the content and age of the novel. It is simple and doesn’t distract from the shared experience of the text. On occasion words or phrases are coloured in green, and at this point both readers should read aloud in sync. Often the phrases echo back to the core themes of duality and duplicity in the story, such as ‘provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature’ or ‘a double-dealer’. In playing with the layout, this hybrid text manages to give a new role to the readers and really emphasizes the split personalities in Stevenson’s novel.

The page numbers are printed on a sheet alone, in bold primary colours of blue and yellow that overlap to form green, and the book itself is presented in a green case. It’s a simple trick that subtly reminds the reader of their participation in the reading. Without the reading partner, this text does not make sense. A merging, or duel agency, is required to tell the story. The book is printed digitally at the moment but there are plans to print using Risograph, which would really suit the bold colours used in these editions. There are more ambitious plans for the project in the future too – A Book for Four that opens up from the top, bottom and either side to be read in a group – and more still for apps so that shared reading can take place across various digital platforms. A Book for Two establishes an open interaction that relies upon participation and encourages you to consider another reader’s experience. In doing so, this hybrid text creates a new reading experience – one that makes reading a novel an interactive, shared experience and means that stories can be shared.

More info on this project:
A Book for Two
Soofiya Chaudry
Creative Review

[1] Walter Benjamin “The Storyteller. Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov
[2] Marc Saporta, “Composition No. 1” (1967), published by Visual Editions in 2010.

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