Henry Eliot’s new book about mazes and labyrinths is a printer’s worst nightmare. Follow This Thread is both a title and an instruction: To read the book, you must turn it upside down and backwards. Lines of text wrap 90 degrees on the page, and a thin red thread — illustrations by the French artist Quibe — travels playfully from page to page.
Believe it or not, this is the “reined in” version.
“When I first pitched it, the design was even more complicated …” Eliot says. “As I described this to my editor, I could see her face just kind of falling.”
They scaled it back a bit, but it still wasn’t until he got the final copy from the printer that Eliot was able to “breathe a sigh of relief.”
Eliot has been into mazes ever since he was a kid. He and his sister used to run through an ancient maze carved into a hillside outside the English city where they grew up. He was fascinated by the feeling that he was always drawn to enter — but uncomfortable once inside.
“Although I was intrigued to get inside, once I was in the maze I found them pretty unpleasant actually,” Eliot recalls. “I didn’t like the feeling of being lost and disorientated. And it struck me as a strange paradox that we’re both drawn into them and repelled from them.”
Like a maze, Eliot’s new book takes twists and turns — through history, philosophy, myth, legend and pop culture. He talks with NPR about ancient labyrinths, mazes in literature, and why the center of a maze is (and isn’t) like death.
On the psychology of mazes
When you enter a maze you’re living out a kind of ancient metaphor for the challenge of life. … Especially a maze which has choices and has dead ends, it feels very much like a kind of allegory for life … You find your way through it, and you try to do the best job you can, and the center of the maze — which is the goal of the puzzle, it’s the goal of the challenge — is the ultimate dead end. It’s a place you get to where there’s nowhere else to go, it’s where you stop. And there’s a way in which that maps onto death, I think.
Obviously when you die there’s no coming back, but in the maze you’re offered a chance of redemption, you’re allowed to turn around and emerge from the maze having learned from the experience that you’ve been through.
On why ancient mazes can be found all over the world
There isn’t really an easy explanation. It’s possible that it was discovered simultaneously by different cultures. … When you cut open the stomach and look at the guts that looks quite like a maze system, and the brain looks quite maze-like. So maybe these kind of natural occurrences of maze-y designs meant that it kind of appeared simultaneously around the world.
On the making the book itself a maze
I really liked that idea of the book itself being like a maze. And that’s partly because there are so many examples of mazes inside books. There’s that wonderful library maze in [Umberto Eco’s] The Name of the Rose or the maze at the center of Stephen King’s [The] Shining. …
Quite early on we had this idea to rotate the text so that you had to kind of turn the book to find your way through it. The turns and the text exactly match the turns that one would have to make if you were walking through the Classical seven path labyrinth.
On our heightened fear of getting lost, in an age when our phones can always guide us home
It feels like a very modern phenomenon, doesn’t it? I mean, I certainly feel it — if my phone runs out of batteries, especially in a foreign city, I feel completely marooned. It’s a kind of self-reliance that we’re losing by having these devices in our pocket. I mean I would really recommend the experience of being genuinely lost, and I think a maze is quite a good place to have that feeling, because you know that you’re getting lost within a safe space. … Maybe this is a function for mazes in the future — that it’s a safe place to have that feeling of being lost.
Sam Gringlas and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.