Affordances and the “Extreme” Book

Image sourced from the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review: Lamentation (click image for link). This image reveals the accordion-style folding of the pages of Nox.

When viewed at a glance or from a bookshelf, Anne Carson’s Nox (pictured above) appears to be a codex like any other. However, when you get close enough to open the book ― or a better term would be box ― its unique structure is immediately apparent. Nox consists of one long, accordion-folded page inside a box, seemingly testing the limits of what we know a normal book, or codex, to be. It is concurrently a reproduction of a notebook and a book of poetry about the death of Carson’s brother, viewed through the lens of the Roman “Poem 101” by Catallus, and includes handwritten letters, old family photos, collages, and sketches from Carson’s life.

I first learned about this book last spring semester during my ENG 345 class, Creating Book Culture, with Dr. Ford, and it made such an impact on me that it was one of the first things to come to mind when we had class in the Rare Book Room and talked about the affordances of books. I would argue that Nox is an “extreme” book, not only due to its unique physical structure, but also because it is an example of all five affordances of the codex.

It is simultaneously sequential and random access; like most normal books, it can be read front-to-back, but since it is a book of poetry, the reader can flip to any page and still understand the content, and this experience is only heightened with the use of images Carson places throughout. It is a volumetric object, made very apparent since the entire book rests inside a box. It is a finite object, since it has a beginning and ending and a certain amount of pages (but no page numbers). It offers a comparative visual space in two different ways: more than one page can be viewed at one time (or even all pages, if completely unfolded), and its text and its images coexist on opposite pages, or even sometimes the same page. Finally, it is writeable as well as readable; its pages offer a large amount of blank space, and the scans of handwritten notes that are scattered throughout serve as a constant reminder that books can be written in.

Image sourced from Poets.org’s “Nox [Excerpts]” (click for link). An example of Nox’s interplay between words and images.
As Matthew Kirschenbaum wrote in his “Bookscapes” article, “Books on the screen are not books, they are models of books.” Despite the fact that it is a print book, Nox is still more of a model of a book than what we think of as a book. Nox is an “extreme” book in the sense that it serves as an example of all five affordances of the codex and has its own unique physical structure.