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Reading beyond the Pages

John Bennion’s innovative approach to crafting books engages readers in exceptional ways.

Literary craft no longer involves just books, but for some enterprising authors, it can include short essays, art, and even music. John Bennion utilized innovative ways of literary engagement with his most recent contemporary fantasy novel, Spin (2022). At the September 23 installment of the English Reading Series, the former BYU creative writing professor explained that he wants to immerse readers in the story beyond the physical pages. To accomplish this, he employed a literary form known as multimodal reading, which incorporates visual art, audio, and other unique elements alongside traditional prose.

Spin centers on Lily, a recent divorcée who loses custody of her child, Anne, to her abusive ex-husband. Distraught that her daughter is being abused, Lily sets out to find her daughter. Lily happens upon a spin wheel that, when she spins it, magically guides her agonizing search across Salt Lake City, eventually leading her to Anne. Bennion’s experimental novel features evocative drawings, music, and essays to bring Lily’s perspective to life.

Lily’s internal wrestle with divorce trauma and losing her daughter prompted Bennion to try a multimodal approach. For example, he used essays to emphasize certain themes.

One such essay explores the Jewish folktale of Lilith, who, according to certain traditions, was Adam’s first wife. Bennion describes how Adam, who was created out of dust, considered himself superior to Lilith, created from refuse. Lilith refused to lie beneath Adam and allow him to dominate her. Adam banished Lilith from the Garden of Eden, leading her to procreate with Satan. Bennion compares Lilith and Lily in their unwillingness to submit to their husbands’ abusive treatment. The essay provides commentary on hard-hitting ideas like dominance and feminism and how we face similar struggles in our world.

To create his multimodal masterpiece, Bennion enlisted the help of his children. His daughter Amy, for example, drew illustrations as if they came from Lily’s sketchbook. The illustrations highlight Lily’s inner turmoil, represented by images of skeletons holding Lily captive.

Bennion’s son Christopher wrote a song to give Lily’s thoughts melodic expression. The song, called “Spin,” is Lily’s heartfelt promise that regardless of her imperfections and circumstances, she will always devote her life to Anne. Her guilt is emphasized in the line, “The good is gone, but I’ll belong to you my child, I swear. Home is waiting out there somewhere.” The catchy tune creates an immersive sound experience that appeals to readers who lose focus reading quickly and prefer analyzing deep themes through other mediums.

As an experimental writer, Bennion often garners criticism from fellow authors. He admitted his work is an acquired taste. Regardless, multimodal literature provides a variety of ways for readers to engage with the story—something Bennion thinks is particularly effective in the age of digital media and its influence on users’ shortening attention spans.

Discover more of Bennion’s novels, multimodal collaborations, and reflective writing prompts on his website here. The English Reading Series is held each Friday at noon in the HBLL. You can find the upcoming schedule here.

A book with open pages.
Photo by Pixabay