Monday, January 30, 2017

The Embodiment of Books

When thinking about books, we usually focus on their content, and not on their physical structure. However, the actual layout of a book is sometimes just as important as the meanings of the words one finds on its pages.

One notable example of this is the incredible novel House of Leaves (Danielewski, 2000). In many instances the pages of this book contains only a few words, arranged in peculiar ways to mirror events occurring in the novel. You haven’t experienced reading about a chase until you do so in this book, flipping rapidly to the next page during a pursuit, so that the frequency of moving to the next page reflects the increasing action unfolding in the plot.

A nice scholarly example of an interesting embodiment is The Society of Mind (Minsky, 1985). This book explores the idea of cognition emerging from the interactions of numerous simple agents. It is laid out in such a way that each chapter takes up a single page. This encourages the reader to interpret each chapter as a simple agent, and to consider interacting messages from chapters as delivering the rich message of the book. I was so taken by this sort of embodiment that I drafted two whole book manuscripts in this format (Dawson, 2008; Dawson, Dupuis, & Wilson, 2010). You start to write amazingly concisely when every page has to deliver a standalone message!

I’m thinking about books and embodiment because I’ve just finished reading one of the visionary books of embodied cognitive science, the influential The Tree of Knowledge (Maturana & Varela, 1998). This books provides a strong anti-representational view of cognition, arguing instead that cognition emerges from the linked relationships between self-organizing systems and the environments that they act upon. What is amazing about The Tree of Knowledge is that it is laid out as an introductory text, with a small single column of text on most pages, as well as numerous definition boxes and figures. In keeping with this format, the book is written in a disarmingly elementary style, even as it provides a complex and novel view of cognition that is quite distinct from typical perspectives. That is, the book is easy to read – but challenging to understand!

Maturana and Varela clearly had to work very hard to carry out this particular style of writing and of presenting ideas. The afterword indicates that the book itself was a decade in the making.


Danielewski, M. Z. (2000). House of leaves (2nd ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.
Dawson, M. R. W. (2008). Connectionism and classical conditioning. Comparative Cognition and Behavior Reviews, 3 (Monograph), 1-115.
Dawson, M. R. W., Dupuis, B., & Wilson, M. (2010). From Bricks To Brains: The Embodied Cognitive Science Of LEGO Robots. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.
Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1998). The Tree of Knowledge. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Minsky, M. L. (1985). The Society Of Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.