27 February 2012

Bones of the Book

I recently bought a book about the future of books. It’s called The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, and features twenty-six authors (including two n+1 editors) describing what they think might become of literature. Given the collection’s prophetic subtitle, and that I was reading it on my new, still-extraterrestrial-seeming iPad, I was surprised to find that very few of the authors mention e-books. Those who do tend to regard them with dread and disgust, like a farmhand studying a handful of fallen locusts. One author compared e-books to astronaut food; another to Mortal Kombat. Another suggested that perhaps we could create e-readers that would exactly resemble books, with cardboard covers and hundreds of papery pages and so on, but whose cover graphics and print could morph from Salinger to Tolstoy in a click.

Peering through smudges of finger grease on the iPad screen, the notion of an actual electronic book held a certain whimsical allure. Then I read the collection’s penultimate contribution, by the novelist Reif Larsen. In it, he makes an obvious but often unmentioned point: the book is a technology born of its circumstances, and ancient ones at that. Around the first century B.C.E. in Rome, the codex’s bound papyrus or leather membranae replaced the polyptych’s wax or wooden tablets (imagine the world’s bulkiest three-ring binder), making it possible to compile information at greater length and less weight. Unlike wax tablets, books didn’t break or melt, and unlike scrolls, they could be quickly thumbed through to locate a desired passage.  Students could carry them to their lectures, generals could mail them to the hinterland, and pagans could hide them in their robes. It was a revolutionary invention. But now consider the e-book, displayed on a slim electronic tablet, which can relay exponentially more information at even less weight, with even greater functionality. The proponent of paper books will one day sound “like a Victorian–era man arguing the benefits of candelight over Edison’s newfangled electric lanterns,” Larsen writes. Indeed, an e-book needs multiple pages and a cardboard cover like a lightbulb needs wax. 

Larsen begins his essay by highlighting the many literary experiments that paper made possible—from 15th-century illuminated manuscripts to the proto-hypertextuality of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch and Christopher Manson’s Maze. He then imagines what territory e-books might explore once they grow into their new shells. An innovative e-book could burst the fixed boundaries of the page. Images could “ghost in” behind words, or float above them. Instead of book covers, we could have multimedia “trailers.” The text could be “heavily supplemented” by multimedia elements like narration, music, videos, and even “several risqué deleted scenes, options to improve the story on your own, and a sidepanel of real-time Twitter reviews.”

“From a storyteller’s point of view,” Larsen concludes, “the opportunities to engage a reader in new story-worlds seem simultaneously limitless and horrific.” The trick, he writes, is “knowing when to harness the power of the new media and when to let the simplicity of the text work its magic.” He speaks from experience: last spring, Penguin published an “amplified edition” of his cartography-obsessed, lightly hypertextual first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009). After reading Larsen’s essay, I downloaded a copy of the Spivet iPad app. The novel’s opening screen (cover?) played a hokey theme song. That screen faded into a table of contents of sorts—fourteen chapters, arranged horizontally, like a row of flypaper strips dangling from the ceiling. I opened up the first chapter. The paragraphs were formatted in the “fluid vertical plane” that Larsen envisioned in his essay, with long columns of text running unbroken down a tea-toned background. Further amplifications: videos of barns, semi trucks, and people wordlessly playing horseshoes. 

Like in the novel itself, the pages of the app come packed with marginalia penned by the precocious 12-year-old narrator. But due to the narrowness of the iPad screen, you can’t read the marginalia without first dragging them to the middle of the page—they can become unglued, like Post-It notes—obscuring the main text. I quickly grew to resent these little pieces of paper that kept slipping around, pulling my attention from the story at hand. It was like flipping through a scrapbook, except no one had bothered to tape anything down.

The more innovative the e-book, it seems, the more it falls apart. 


The e-book is usually said to have been invented in 1971, when an undergrad at the University of Illinois, Michael S. Hart, decided to upload The Declaration of Independence onto an ARPAnet server. Sitting in the Materials Research Lab among hulking, warmly breathing Xerox Sigma V processors, Hart went on to input and share, with a quixotic singularity of purpose, text after text, from Peter Pan to The Tempest. Few saw the revolutionary implications of his actions until years later, when his Project Gutenberg—which by then had uploaded thousands of books—began to attract copyright lawsuits and became a figurehead for the fledgling hacktivist and open source movements. 

Today, more than two million e-books are available for free download on the internet.  Pair this abundance with an increasingly cheap (and perhaps one day soon, free) Kindle, and you have some counterweight to the dwindling local library. If those noble institutions exist at all in thirty years, our children will probably know them as quiet places to use computers and read e-books. You can already walk into one of 11,000 public libraries, from Manhattan to Missoula, and have e-books loaned to your Kindle. 

The e-book’s fate was not always assured. For more than a decade after its invention, the format languished in the digital backwaters. Without affordable personal computers, a worldwide web, or e-readers, there was simply no market for it. That market gradually opened in the early ’90s with the production of a series of ill-fated e-readers, like the Rocket e-book and Sony’s Data Discman, but the e-book remained a bête noire for traditional publishers. They argued that the devices were prohibitively expensive and provided an inferior reading experience, which largely remains true. They also spent a lot of time discussing intangibles that turned out not to matter to most consumers, like the musty perfume of paper and the jouissance of a well-appointed bookshelf.

For Hart, who died last fall, the book was not sacred. It was simply an easily digitizable object. Inspired by the “replicator” devices he saw on Star Trek, Hart wanted to make all of the world’s design objects—anything that could be scanned and reproduced—available for free on the internet, where they could then be downloaded and reconstituted using 3D printers. He called this shift the “Neo-Industrial Revolution,” and predicted it would occur by the year 2040.


Traditionalists attack e-books because they are not enough like print books. The electronic literary vanguard tends to dislike e-books because they are too much like real books. Electronic writers have long defined their craft as any piece of digital writing except e-books, which they consider mere scans of paper. They have perhaps overlooked some of the e-book’s creative possibilities, but they have helped to define what e-book connotes. If an e-book mutates too far from its physical progenitor, then it becomes electronic literature. 

The field of electronic literature began as a hundred loose strands, which briefly appeared to braid into a new art form called hypertext fiction. The influential hyperfictionist Stuart Moulthrop’s “Subjective Chronology of Cybertext, Hypertext, and Electronic Writing” cites as the form’s founding influences a 1945 Atlantic article by Vannevar Bush that envisioned a machine for organizing and linking information; a 1961 computer game called Spacewar!; the writings of Robert Coover, Milorad Pavic, and Thomas Pynchon; the work of hypertext pioneer and theorist Ted Nelson; and Donna Haraway’s 1991 “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Those influences collided in the mid 1980s, when a novelist (and early PC adopter), Michael Joyce, working from his home in Michigan, grew frustrated with the constraints of his word processing software. For decades, experimental writers like Coover had been pushing against the static linearity of the page—a restriction that, Joyce quickly realized, ceased to exist in a digital space. “In my eyes, paragraphs on many different pages could just as well go with paragraphs on many other pages, although with different effects and for different purposes,” Joyce later wrote. “All that kept me from doing so was the fact that, in print at least, one paragraph inevitably follows another.” 

When Joyce met a young computer scientist named Jay David Bolter at the Yale Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1984, they began working on such a program. They called it StorySpace, because it allowed readers to navigate a text spatially rather than sequentially, by following hypertextual threads like corridors in a labyrinth. Partly to test out the new software, Joyce wrote afternoon, a story (1987), which is known as the world’s first hypertext novel.

The early hypertextualists—Joyce, Moulthrop, Judy Malloy, Shelley Jackson, Rob Swigart, J. Yellowlees Douglas—wrote about interconnectedness, flux, immateriality, and sprawl, themes that reflected the structure of StorySpace, the program most of them used to craft and publish their work. Yet the hyperfictionists also managed to bend the technology to their own political and artistic whims, using its disruptive nature to splinter notions of linearity and authorship. These early forays shaped the imperatives of the new art form, even as its pioneers retired to the relative plushness of print media and teaching positions. Subsequent generations of electronic writers have pursued these ends to dreamy new places. This cadre of author-programmers, clustered around a handful of progressive universities and museums, continue to engineer word toys, interactive fiction, and various forms of digital poetry—poems that shiver and collapse; poems that read themselves; poems that crawl across gallery walls; poems encoded within poems; poems randomly generated by algorithms; poems fully abstracted into constellations of floating individual letters. The end result has been a corpus of texts so hard and shiny they could chip a tooth.   


For all of the critical attention it received, nobody ever got rich off hyperfiction; it devolved first into an academic exercise, then into a quaint gimmick—as in the case of Paul LaFarge’s recent online “hyperromance,” Luminous Airplanes, which he used to promote a paper novel of the same name. But concurrent with the rise of hypertext was the development of a more populist art form, the “expanded e-book.” The expanded e-book was created by Bob Stein, who had made his reputation inventing the Criterion Collection (the laserdisc predecessor to the modern, bonus-laden DVD), which he imagined as a more bookish version of film: a movie with chapters and layers of commentary that you would want to return to again and again. The idea came to Stein when he saw how, on laserdisc, one could move in slow motion through the seven opening shots of Citizen Kane, and in the process, deconstruct how Welles achieved the effect of the camera seeming to glide up to that lighted window of Xanadu. Stein’s vision for Criterion was in a way similar to Michael Joyce’s for StorySpace. “What’s great about books is that the power is in the hand of the user,” he once told a Wired reporter. “What we do [at Criterion] is transform a producer-driven medium into a user-driven one.”  

In late 1990, Stein turned his thinking to e-books, and how to sell them. Using the Criterion model, he founded Voyager Expanded Books. The business transposed popular titles like Jurassic Park and tech-niche darlings like Neuromancer onto diskettes and CD-Roms. In many ways, these books resembled modern e-books: they were searchable, annotatable, and featured variable typeface sizes. Like current enhanced e-books, they even contained interactive multimedia elements. In Jurassic Park, for instance, the illustrated dinosaurs could roar, growl, and squeak. Unfortunately, it took about three seconds to turn the page.

Progressive and well intentioned as Stein was, nearly all of the missteps that e-book publishers have made and continue to make can be traced back to Voyager. Stein revolutionized home movies by making them more like books, but crippled books by trying to make them more like DVDs. Take the way Larsen envisioned the future of books, stuffed with “extras”: trailers, commentary, and deleted scenes. Stein’s impulse was always to add, rather than to adapt. The e-book is still trying to extricate itself from that legacy. 


Our Choice, a multimedia book app from PushPop Press, opens with a video of Al Gore’s tanned, waxen face speaking directly into the camera. “Welcome to Our Choice,” he says, making a point to refer to it as an app and not a book. He then presents a tutorial on how to read the book, or app, which I found mildly patronizing the first time I launched it (part of the fun of electronic literature lies in mastering a new text’s mechanics) and downright annoying the second and third time. (I did not open it a fourth.)

The tutorial would be necessary for no one under the age of 65; the thing is pretty damn intuitive. Swipe left, and you see the “cover”—an image of a rotating 3D model of a familiar blue-green planet. “In my faith tradition, in the book of Deuteronomy, God says, ‘I am giving you the choice of life or death. You can choose either blessings or curses,’” sermonizes the voice of Gore. “We are at a crossroads. We must choose the type of earth our grandchildren will inherit.” Tap again, and the land breaks out in a rash of yellow, ecru and cocoa—a scorched planet, its oceans haunted by swirling many-tentacled clouds. Although I tend to dislike zoomed-out imagery that abstracts the terrifying effects the climate catastrophe will have on our human-scale lives, it is impossible to deny that this is starkly effective visual storytelling. 

Another tap leads to the book itself. When Gore says it’s “interactive,” he isn’t exaggerating. This is a stunning piece of programming. The pages are arrayed in a horizontal strip along the bottom of the page beneath a big banner image. Inset into the text of each page are photos, which can be unfolded and enlarged by un-pinching your fingertips. Occasionally, these images lurch to life as BBC News-style videos, audio slideshows, or brilliantly conceived infographics. Other times, they open into pixelated computer animations that look like they were ported in from The Sims. In a particularly clever infographic about wind energy, the reader can blow on the iPad’s screen and prompt a windmill to spin.

The problem with Our Choice is that among the elephantine hi-def images and infographics, the text gets buried. Reading it feels like flipping through a coffee table book: grazing the lush images, you avoid eye contact with the daunting gray bricks of text. If this is the future of the book, then the book is indeed doomed. Writing is a miraculous technology all its own—a code that, when input through the optic nerve, induces structured, coherent hallucinations. An equivalent experience does not exist. Words have shape and musicality. They almost have a flavor. But they are too easily drowned out by stronger stimuli. 

The danger of Our Choice is not that it’s bad, but that it does a bad thing so well. It threatens to convince publishers that PushPop has succeeded in its mission to “change the way we read books.” Fortunately, we won’t have to worry about the company’s next assault against the written word. After publishing just one title, PushPop was absorbed by larger forces. “We created a new way of publishing and exploring text, images, audio, video and interactive graphics, then teamed up with Al Gore to create a new kind of book,” read a message on PushPop’s website shortly after they were bought out. “Now we’re taking our publishing technology and everything we’ve learned and are setting off to help design the world’s largest book, Facebook.” 


Amazon recently released the Kindle Touch, which looks like the old Kindle, only with fewer buttons. But tucked away behind its (to my eye, still rather Game-Boyish) screen is a new mechanism. Amazon calls it X-Ray, and promises it will show you “the bones of the book.” By this they mean X-Ray will show you a detailed set of metadata pertaining to any given word, theme, or passage (“Dr. Philip Philippovich,” say, or “Soviet-era Russia,” or “transmogrification”) that you can then use to navigate through the text—an index-cum-glossary, graphically represented and hyperlinked back to the text itself.

The trend towards meta-analyzing books, while a boon for academics practicing distant reading, likely will not change our experience of reading. But one can envision writers using this model to create truly mammoth texts with visible architectonics the reader could trace at will. A reader could trace various routes through the same text, tailoring the reading experience, slicing off digressions or exploring dead ends. The effect would be somewhat like reading a hypertext, but with map in hand.

A handful of start-ups are trying to further connect the dots, not just within books but among them. Small Demons’ “storyverse” aims to create a searchable catalog of every cultural, artistic, or geographic reference within every book, while IDEO’s Nelson project would stitch together multiple political or philosophical tracts to give the sense of a debate unfolding over time. In 1945, Vannevar Bush argued that the work of navigating the world’s information would one day fall to a professional caste of hardy souls “who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.” Google rendered that profession unnecessary, but not obsolete; our current obsession with online curation has only begun to fulfill this prediction. What is an anthology if not trail-making? What are websites like Longreads and Byliner? What is the allusive poem? And what, in fact, is the essay? The revelation of the X-Ray is to bring these connections to the surface.


Those more skeptical of the expanded e-book model might be at least partly converted by the new, best-selling app version of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, by Touch Press. Eliot’s poem comes swaddled in diaphanous layers of multimedia, which rise or recede upon command, including critical interpretations, Eliot’s own scribbled-upon drafts, and live readings by the author, Ted Hughes, Alec Guinness, Fiona Shaw, and Viggo Mortensen. Upon release, the app quickly topped the iTunes list of best-selling book apps, and for good reason. It is the best enhanced e-book yet devised, revivifying a text long buried under its own accumulated dust. And yet it still feels chimerical, incongruous—an old man with cyborg arms. 

Another, neater reincarnation is Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (1961). Originally published as an unbound box of pages to be shuffled and read in any order, Saporta’s novel has been turned into an iPad app. The app consists of stark black text against a white background, nothing more. Open the book and the pages begin to flash by, too quickly to read, like the spinning of a slot machine’s wheels, until you press your finger to the screen, and they freeze. Finger tensed against glass, I read the first page, necessarily engaged in a way the paper book does not demand. Then I lifted my finger, and the pages again started shuffling. A little page counter in the bottom right hand corner counts up to 150. 

In this way, I went through a mosaic narrative of resistance fighters, complacent office workers, and German soldiers living in occupied France. The gimmick doesn’t always work. Certain scenes run sequentially across multiple pages, and when these pages abut, it’s clear the chronology has become scrambled. These instances are rare, however, and the overall effect is one of poetic parataxis, disjunctive but coherent. 

I’d feared the stochastic arrangement might lessen the overall thrust of the piece—why read to the last page when any page could be the last?—but I hurried to reach the ending. Another reader may have ended on a note of circularity. (“The couch, along the wall, is covered with a Mexican serape. Dagmar is sitting there with her legs folded under her. Above her head, contrasting violently with her blond hair, the dark abstract painting with clots of color that seem to be on fire is still unfinished. It is called Composition No. 1.”)  My Composition ended with a bloody ambush of a hideout by the Germans, while two French fighters, sitting quietly out in the woods, listened to the screams. The last line—“A tall German woman with queenly bearing nonchalantly crosses the barnyard. She would be beautiful without her uniform.”—might have had little significance elsewhere, but here I was stunned by its eerily flat tone and sculptural asymmetry. It was not so much what the author did that was impressive, but what he, deliberately, did not.

Image: A 1609 edition of The Fairie Queene, digitized by the University of Illinois library. From library.illinois.edu/blog.

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