351: “Paratexts” (Gerard Genette)

                “[Paratexts like titles, prefaces, and illustrations “surround” and “extend” a text] precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of the verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world.”
                -Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation

                I’d like to write a science fiction novella that looks like, and says it is, a field guide to birds. Birds of Santa Rosa, California, I might call it. The first page might have an “Amber Hummingbird,” with a sketch of the creature sipping from a flower. Later pages would have blackfooted ducks, drones, mechanical eagles, paper airplanes, red tailed hawks, flying skeletons, sandpipers with their long legs. I’m very much not a birder. As far as I know I made up the amber hummingbird. But imagining these creatures, extinct and emerging, beautiful and frightening, would be a fun way to explore home, to explore the childhood wonder I felt when I saw seagulls bobbing on the waves before taking flight, to explore loss and drought and memory and what I mean when I say us. Which is related to what I mean when I say you, or even other. To do all that, I think the book might gain a lot by pretending to be something it wasn’t. A guidebook.
                All the trappings around a text invite us to interact with it in different ways. If something says “a novel” on the cover, I tend to read it one way. If it says “a dictionary,” or if it looks like a news article, I read it in other ways. In reading Genette I’m drawn to how we can play with paratexts, with the form and trappings of the ‘thing,’ to explore ideas in different  ways. I think there’s something about the birds of Santa Rosa that I haven’t seen in a book yet. It’s not a diagram of common markings, dutifully labeled “male” and “female.” It’s a taxonomy of phylum, class, order, suborder, and family. It might be something about families, the ones I live in, the ones I see in bird’s nests and behind the window when I get back home.What would you put in a book of Birds of My Hometown? Where might I walk if I followed your guide?

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