Why would you need instructions for operating a page? That’s what this Norwegian comedy
sketch - involving a Medieval IT Helpdesk - asks. The joke is that the monks, accustomed to scrolls and faced with the new fangled innovation of the book, can’t seem to operate these strange ‘page’ things. How do you turn them? What direction do they go in, and what happens to the text you’ve just read once you can’t see it anymore? Is it lost? How do you get it back? As a history lesson it’s not accurate: the codex book would have been very familiar to medieval monks. They were the ones who produced it, slowly and painstakingly, in their scriptoria. But the point is an interesting one. At some stage the codex page was a new thing, an unfamiliar device. It’s not clear when that was, and debate is still going on about when and how it superseded the scroll. But there are contexts in which the page can still manifest itself as something strange, and become a device that requires instructions for use.
Artists books and avant garde experimentation are one such context, messing around with the form of the page, so that you need to be told how to navigate it. (Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes is prefaced with a section called ‘Directions for Use’.) Children’s books are where you find some of the most interesting examples, though. They are often made to be novelties, so they have a distinctive logic. The page, rather than being an unobtrusive medium, is something that has to reinvent itself constantly, to be new and interesting. You’re invited to do things with it, to cut it out and make things, for instance. It’s also something that is made to be read with the hands as much as the eye. The Victorians invented the terms ‘toy book’ and ‘moveable book’, reimagining the page as something to be touched and played with. Books operated with a tab are one example, and a familiar one now, but when Dean and Sons pioneered this device in the late 1850s it needed to come with instructions for use. Dissolving Views, from around 1860, involves pulling tabs at the top and bottom of the page to slide flaps up and down, something like a Venetian blind, thus changing the page from one picture to another. The instructions tell you how to position the book and how to operate it. Lothar Meggendorfer, who developed this pull-tab mechanism to do more sophisticated things, would include directions not at the start of the book but as part of the text, advising readers to pull the strips, but only gently, otherwise they would break.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Dean and Sons came up with many other designs and modes of operation. This one, in their series of Surprise Model Pictures, bends the page when the book is opened, making certain parts stand out and creating a three dimensional effect. It’s a complicated bit of engineering involving strings and supports (Dean had a studio of designers working on these new innovations). But the most interesting thing is how these pages come with instructions. At the top of the page it says: ‘Before opening each page place thumbs where
marked, hold firmly and open wide’. There are thumb marks, indicating exactly where you grasp the pages. They look a little like the ones produced by graphic designer Quentin Fiore in The Medium is the Massage, his collaboration with Marshall McLuhan. Fiore was illustrating the point that the book IS a technological medium. He was drawing attention to what we do with the page: because of course it’s impossible not become conscious of your OWN thumbs holding the page open, in approximately the same place as these printed facsimiles. Fiore’s are knowing, self-reflexive pages. And so, in a way are these instructions for child readers of Dean’s Surprise Model Pictures. These are pages acknowledging and advertising their own workings.
Here’s an earlier example though, and what seems like a simpler, less odd format. It’s a flap book or ‘turn-up book’ from 1770. These were inexpensive chap books produced by the printer Robert Sayer, combining picture and rhyme, and they commonly featured the figure of harlequin. This one is called Harlequin’s Invasion, and it’s clearly designed to cash in on the popularity of a recent stage pantomime of the same name. For the price of 6 pence (or a shilling for a colour version), readers could experience something of a trip to the panto, with its tricks and surprising transformations. The book achieves this with its flap structure, since turning them changes the picture and transforms people into trees, and judges into old women. Even something as simple as this, only a step away from the conventional page, can require instructions, though. It’s not clear which flap to turn first, so the rhyme tells us how to operate the book: 'Tricking, you find, will ne'er prevail. Turn up and then persue the tale'. The order is important, since the right sequence produces the surprising metamorphoses. A ‘metamorphosis’ is actually another name for this kind of chapbook, a term which describes both its narrative content AND its format. It demonstrates that the two are entwined. Here, the page, like harlequin, performs novel tricks and produces the unexpected.
This metamorphosis is not a children’s book exactly – it's a spin-off from the pantomime, which was a form enjoyed mainly by young adults at the time – but it is seen as the forerunner of many later ‘interactive’ books for children. This is right, but the most interesting thing about them is not their difference from conventional pages, but their similarity. Reading still involves turning over leaves of paper, they just happen to be vertically arranged rather than horizontal. Tweaking the page format in this way makes us more conscious of what we’re doing when we read, but it illustrates that all reading is a manual interaction with the page. And here’s a recent example that illustrates that, too, but in a contrasting way. It’s Hervé Tullet’s Press Here, a children’s book that has a quite conventional page format. It doesn’t have any tabs or flaps, but each page has instructions, telling you to press the yellow dot firmly, to blow on the page, or shake it. The dots on the page then ‘react’: we’re invited to tip the book, for example, and turning over we find all the dots have slid to one side. This is the page playfully imagining itself as a touchscreen, and Tullet is encouraging his young readers to think about what’s similar, or different, about the physical page. These instructions are a kind of choreography, making reading apparent as an interaction with an object, which, after all, it is. We just don’t think of it like that very often, because it becomes second nature.