The Importance of Paratextual Information in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Smith and Watson, the co-writers of the riveting text Reading Autobiography, define paratext as “the framing produced by their (a books) publication, reception, and circulation” (99).  “Cover designs, the author’s name, the dedication, titles, prefaces, introductions, chapter breaks, and endnotes” are all part of the paratextual surroundings and information of a book.  Smith and Watson further state that paratexts “comprise a threshold that can dramatically affect its (a books) interpretation and reception by variously situated reading communities” (100).  The paratextual information of Claudia Rankine’s text Don’t Let Me Be Lonely certainly seems to be an important aspect to the actual writing itself.  While paratexts always affect the readers perception of a book, for instance one might prefer a hard cover to a soft or perhaps you are like me and sometimes buy books based on cool cover designs (I do the same for wine too, always interesting), Rankine seems to be purposefully manipulating the paratext of her book to make a statement about her writing.

First of all the abnormal shape of her book is one purposeful paratextual manipulation.  The subtitle of Rankine’s text is An American Lyric reminding me of the ancient Grecian lyrics or sung oral tales of old.  This may be my own perception but the physical length of the book (it is almost three times as long as it is wide) speaks to this idea of a lyric.  The book is very skinny and elongated reminding me of a scroll of parchment much like an old lyric would have been written on.  This idea may be a bit far fetched; however, the length of the book also extends the space on each page, and space seems to be an important aspect of Rankine’s writing.  The physical space on the page affects the reader as the read.  It alienates the words on the page highlighting their importance; highlighting the starkness and loneliness of death and life that is discussed on the pages.  The fuzzy TV screens interspersed throughout the text acting as postmodern chapter markers also alienates the reader.  The white fuzz is empty space put on top of empty space.

Another important aspect of Rankine’s paratext is the quote at the beginning of her book by Aime Cesaire who states “beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle.”  The design of the book is to make the reader more than just a spectator.  They have to actively read each page and be an active reader because the way her story is laid out one cannot expect there to be a similar format from one page to the next.  It is almost next to impossible to mindlessly read Rankine’s text.

A few other important elements that I only have enough space to touch on here (perhaps someone can pick up where I left off) are her endnotes.  She does not put any marks in the text indicating that there are endnotes; however, she has pages of endnotes at the back of the book.  Another interesting paratext is the note on the last page discussing her choice in font.  The text is set in Imperial, a typeface designed in the 1920s to look more suitable for newspaper printing.  Why would Rankine use this as her font, and more importantly why would she make a notes about it clearly on the last page?

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