What We Are Reading

Author: Melanie Arrow, Strategy Director, BBH London

A new feature for the Labs blog, giving you an insight into the literature that a selection of BBHers are enjoying this month. Consider this your finger on the pulse cultural briefing or at the very least, a more socially acceptable version of reading over someone’s shoulder on the tube.

This month, ridiculous sci-fi plots are described as “technically feasible” by the production department, the phrase “contemporary decentralised fiction” is thrown out there by a strategist like it’s the most casual thing in the world, and two featured books are set on or around Mars. Off we go…

The Little Jewel by Patrick Modiano, reviewed by Doug Fridlund, Creative

Modiano won the Nobel Prize last year. He writes short and very personal stories. The plot itself is simple, but this allows him to delve deep into the mind of the main character – a young girl who never knew her father and only has faint memories of her mother. Her head is a bit of a mess. She obsesses about her mother’s whereabouts. She’s strong but weak at the same time. And lonely. I highly recommend it.

[nb Little Jewel is not out in English until July – our reviewer read it in Swedish. He is Swedish though, so he is not just showing off]

Clothes Music Boys by Viv Albertine, reviewed by Melanie Arrow, Strategy Director


Oh Viv Albertine, I love your book. I love that it’s funny and serious and cool and everything you could want from the memoirs of the bass player of a 1960s all-female punk band (The Slits). I love both halves of the book alike – A side, B side like a record. The former, stories of hanging out with Sid Vicious and Jonny Rotten, the latter, tales of turning into a suburban housewife who sings at open mic nights. But most of all, Viv, I love you. An incredibly talented woman who, as well as being a total nightmare punk back in the day, has battled cancer, struggled to have children, and dabbled in every kind of art including provocative pottery and independent film-making.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, reviewed by Phil Shipley, Strategist


Yeah, yeah, it’s contemporary ‘decentralised’ fiction with cleverly interlocking chapters over a century-long timeframe that bring characters into each others’ orbits showing how humanity’s fate is linked. So far, so Dave Eggers…

But there’s a particular kind of hollow morose beauty to the character’s lives, in and out of the music industry. And Jennifer Egan’s novel turns it up a notch when we step into a worryingly real dystopian future, where touchscreen-toting babies are the ultimate arbiters of taste and people sell access to their mates as viral marketeers rule.

In short, a striking, original and vivid novel. Also – a whole chapter is written in Powerpoint slides, so perfect for strategists.

The Martian by Andy Weir, reviewed by Rich Atkins, Production Director

So good I’m on it for the second time. The daily diary of someone who, thought dead, is abandoned on Mars with no means of communication after the mission is suddenly aborted. A hugely funny whilst still technically feasible story of one man’s mission to get home.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, reviewed by Jen Omran, Team Director


The words ‘What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment?’ are a pretty compelling start to any novel, and Fowler’s first breakthrough book thankfully doesn’t disappoint. Intricately and evocatively written, yet also pleasingly pacy, our uncommonly bright protagonist Rosemary weaves us through this beautifully crafted tale with a genuinely surprising twist in its tail, set against the backdrop of family life in 1970s Indiana. What’s even better is that you’re not dragged through the most part of the novel before you get to the eureka moment. It’s achingly funny. And heart-wrenchingly serious. Read it.


Red Mars by Kim St
anley Robinson
, reviewed by Chris Eeles, Film Production

Part one in an epic trilogy of science fiction/speculation about the colonisation and eventual terraforming of our nearest planetary neighbour – Mars! The story starts with the first hundred settlers arrival and covers a period of forty years, the welcome of additional colonists and then the challenging problems of hundreds of thousands of economic migrants, refugees and outcasts and resulting tensions between the authorities on Mars and Earth. Get past the sci-fi though and there is a great social/political story to enjoy and the idea that when we colonise Mars, this is exactly how we could mess it up.



Tree of Codes and the Web It Left Behind

Author: Jessica Berta (@jeccaberta), Writer, BBH NYC

Certain artists are typecast, sometimes by choice. They capture a style so well that it comes to define them. Author Jonathan Safran Foer falls outside of that camp with a chameleonic thud. He keeps us curious.

In his new book, Tree of Codes, Foer does with a physical book what we often neglect in digital—he turns reading into an experience. In showing how a story’s environment affects its meaning, he gives digital storytellers a slap in the face.

Tree of Codes, breaks from the standard book format in two ways:

  1. It creates a new story by tearing apart and piecing together an old one—Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles.
  2. Each page is die-cut to reveal just a handful of words and phrases.

I found the book annoying to read at first, despite its delicate beauty. I couldn’t decipher between the page I was reading and the ones beneath it. It was like a depth perception test following a mug of bourbon.

After sobering up and finding a better technique, I enjoyed the layout. Words hovered in a dream-ridden state. Thought went into each line, each phrase and how it was laid out. Such attention to the UX of reading is tough to find on the web. Foer’s analog approach would be easy enough to toy with in digital. So why aren’t we more playful with narratives online?

Brilliant writing isn’t enough to keep readers happy. Long blocks of copy, no matter how poetic, are begging for attention spans to scamper off elsewhere. In a design dominant field, it’s easy to neglect voice, tone, even punctuation. Or to forget about how each will figure into a broader environment.

Maybe that’s because we get swept up in technology. We use it to tell stories rather than to shape them. The following ideas and executions use technology to influence how stories are read. Bravo! The better ones put UX at the forefront. In doing so, they offer some lessons in communicating creatively.

These concepts and methods fool with language, narrative and technology to entertain. It’s humbling to think that a few pieces of paper and an X-Acto knife can do the same.

When we leave room for interpretation and delight, we can expand the playground for digital fiction. We can turn stories into experiences that are unique to each reader. So let’s stop neglecting the goddamn words. Pretty please?