Multimedia Brown Review seeks to liven up literature

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Brown Review, the University’s first undergraduate multimedia book review, went online in October 2005. Unlike other literary reviews, the site – – features extensive audio, visual and interactive content. The reviews themselves are unusually personal, stressing how books fit into readers’ lives and not just the canon of literature. Each installment centers on a common theme, the first theme being “Lost Treasures,” and the second being author Kurt Vonnegut.

Matt Sledge ’08 started planning the online book review as soon as he realized that the University did not already have one. “I assumed we had something like this,” Sledge said.

Sledge proposed the idea to Ben Carlson ’07 nearly a year ago, and Carlson enthusiastically came on board. Carlson said he was disconcerted with the “staid, stale” tone of typical book reviews, adding that he saw Sledge’s idea as an opportunity to create a friendlier, more “personal” review.

By the summer, Sledge and Carlson had begun searching for “halfway competent writers” and “praying” for responses, Sledge said. He also received a one-time grant from the University’s Creative Arts Council that has funded the Brown Review’s development so far.

The site’s creators, as well as numerous other writers, gathered to assemble the first issue of the Brown Review early in this academic year. By early October, “Lost Treasures” was on the Internet.

Sledge, Carlson and web designer Cali Pfaff ’08 all hope that the first installment of their project offers a friendlier, more accessible book review. Pfaff said that the Review’s “funky aesthetic” is more “approachable” than other literary publications.

Although the Web site focuses on book reviews, it’s “not even accurate to call them reviews,” Sledge said. Unlike traditional book reviews, the articles frequently feature anecdotes of the reviewers’ lives. In his piece “Pynchon’s Ghosts,” reviewer Adam Delehanty ‘07.5 expounds on the writer’s lost works as well as his own personal obsession with Pynchon.

“As I write this, Pynchon’s face is taped to the wall beside my pillow, so that I can close my eyes and always remember,” Delehanty writes.

In addition to the articles, Sledge emphasized the Review’s multimedia content. Beyond the reviews, Sledge plans for each issue to offer art, audio and hypertext all related to a common theme. The “Lost Treasures” issue includes Pfaff’s painting, “finding yours,” filled with discarded chairs and tables. Pfaff also peppers the site with her own photographs of Portland, Ore. and the surrounding countryside, themselves “lost treasures” of the American landscape.

Although the site does not yet contain audio content, Sledge stressed that future issues will include music composed by Brown students. He hopes that the audio will relate to each issue’s theme, but he said that it could be unrelated or tangential.

Hypertext – or interactive images and passages – also sets these book reviews apart. “Lost Treasures” includes an illustrated compilation of passages from William Vollmann’s “Rainbow Stories,” designed by Jeremy Ashkenas ’08. Visitors navigate through Ashkenas’ colorful rainbow to images of beer bottles, airplanes and beetles that complement excerpts from Vollmann’s “lost treasure” of literature. Ashkenas said he hopes the images will familiarize readers with Vollman’s relatively obscure writing.

Pfaff said her painting may also use hypertext in the future, using the artwork’s floating objects of debris as links to photos and biographies of the Review’s staff.

She said she hopes that the eclectic review will ultimately extend outside of Brown and appeal to anyone who reads it. Sledge agreed that “everybody at Brown, and then everyone who loves books” would enjoy the Review’s content.

He expects the site’s various mediums will get visitors excited about discovering literature they have never encountered. Sledge said he hopes that the review will encourage people to “find new books, rediscover old books and remember how great reading can be,” Sledge said.

Though he remains unsure of exactly when the staff will complete future installments, Sledge said he hopes new issues will arrive three times each academic year.

In contrast to the first two issues’ retrospective focus, the third issue may center on more recent literature, Sledge said.

The Creative Arts Council grant will continue to support the online review for the foreseeable future, but Sledge’s long-term goal is to publish a print edition and to fund the periodical with its sales.

Sledge hopes that the Review will stay in publication long after his graduation in May 2008. “I’d like to pass on the reins,” Sledge said.