I wanted to write an essay about books: physical, electronic and the new kinds of digital books. It is a subject that preoccupies me. The recent Economist essay on digital and physical publishing is an excellent read, with a nice stab at a ‘digital book’ format. However it didn’t really get to the heart of the problem for me, since, unsurprisingly, it headed for the wallet. So this is an accompaniment to that article. This is about the other future of literature, not the industry, but the form: why we love literature, and what literature might become, in a digital world.
For those with short attention spans — if you want to skip the next 2.6k words on what a book is and why it matters and get straight to the juicy, geeky stuff about our new project with Visual Editions click here.
I know that reading is not the same as reading. I can watch TV and read, but I cannot read and watch TV. In fact when I am immersed in reading, when I am inside a thriller, or a history, or a neo-gothic fairy tale then I am catatonic. I could be anywhere, and I cannot do anything else, I cannot talk, text, tweet. (I can listen to music but somehow one doesn’t hear the music). Sometimes I walk and read - a habit we all hate in others — but, I can’t really read and walk. And, when I look up from a period of reading it is like coming out of water, suddenly all the sounds of the world descend and I see the people and the traffic and the noise of the real world around me. Does that sound familiar?
That’s what reading means to me. The last few weeks I have been reading The Children’s Book, by AS Byatt. Every day I sit in the park and get twenty minutes alone in her world, a different, Victorian time, among a lavishly detailed cast of souls. I have recently taken to reading books on my phone (a Nexus 5). To be honest I find this behaviour somewhat scandalous, yet there I am, swiping page after page, rattling through fairy kingdoms and lustful teenage yearnings, thinking about reading. So I started to make a list called: Why are digital books good?
Why are eBooks good?
I scratched out -digital- (because the word ‘digital’ means something different to me). Why are eBooks good? Let’s run through the positives. Starting with:
*All* books are good.
But beyond that:
- eBooks are light; of infinite capacity; readable; unloseable; searchable; scaleable; unbreakable; untearable; easy to read in the dark; hard to read in bright light; (reverse that for Kindles); they are in your pocket/bag always; they are easy to find; simple to buy; they don’t get mouldy, wet and they don’t fall apart. They are really easy.
- Things they will be: shareable; collaborative; unbound to time or geography creating multimedia, interactive, co-reading experiences across distances; they could be extraordinary.
- eBooks mean that you can be a thousand miles from a bookshelf and carry the Booker Prize longlist in your pocket.
eBooks have transformed lives, and that definitely rates as ‘good’.
What is a book?
I did a masters in book art, at Camberwell College — making elaborate, quirky, very physical books — so that may colour my views. Additionally in this essay I’m talking about particular genres — novels, poetry, history, biography, popular science and current affairs — not manuals or text-books, recipes or maps. In this sense, to me a book is an experience that you lose yourself in reading: what we could call its ‘immersive’ quality. The magic part. And we can time-travel on a Kindle just as easily as a paperback. (Jeanette Winterson recently spoke amazingly on this quality.) We have our favourite literary landscapes, we have visions that were etched in young minds and inspire for a lifetime. And if you are reading this, I’m sure like me you have experienced many moments of looking up from a book and waking as if from a dream. It’s an Infinite List: whether histories (Beevor, Mantel) or cartoons (Ware ), mathematicians (du Sautoy) and novelists (Pynchon, Pullman, Pratchett), not to mention anything by Robert Harris (for which I have a shockingly soft spot). It is hard to define this magic bookness. Sometimes I think it is about the form; sometimes about the words, certainly it is psychological, words are isolating and unavoidably meaning-full: but magic is not held in the form of e-reader, phone or paper.
Generically and traditionally, books are been primarily static (they don’t change much) and they follow some loose patterns:
- Books are generally textual and lives in the reader’s mind’s eye rather than pre-constructed (e.g. video or games), although it may have pictures and typographic play (but this is less usual).
- Conventionally, books present a paginal narrative; or, if not paginal, linear; or, if not linear, a multi-dimensional self-contained reality: a “world” of the authors imagination. See Tolkein, or Rowling; or Dahl, Defoe or Dickens, or any good author, or even a bad one.
- Temporality has no place in books. Decades may pass in a sentence, or seconds in chapters.
All of this happens equally well on OLED as it does on pulp or vellum.
By the way, if you are interested in why words matter, the significance of context in information, and how we were betrayed by the telegram into an era of context-free banality then I strongly recommend Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman — a book from 30 years ago (1986) that becomes more pertinent with every year that passes. It is astute, charming and really rather cross. As you probably will be at the end of it.
So anyway, I sit on the train, reading my book, on my phone and watching my comrades commute. I have also been counting and I count an 8 out of 10 average will take out their phone and read on the train. This seems a huge percentage. I wonder how many are reading books. I wonder if any of them miss the days when they would have pulled out a book, instead of CandyCrush, or 1024, or Facebook.
What is wonderful about the physical book?
1. Paper is nice.
2. Data gets lost.
3. Digital is like latin
4. Physical is tactile
The fact that we still love the book-as-a-book may simply be to do with its own physicality. The sensual appeal of a book in the hand. It’s nice to imagine for a moment the pen, hovering over a blank, thin-ruled page, and watch words emerge from puddles of ink, bleeding down crushed valleys of fine wood pulp, letter-pressing dreams and layering meaning on inference on innuendo into the leathery, well-thumbed leaves. Imagine we stripped away all of that: the penciled annotations, my scrawled marginalia, the coffee ring, the folds, the ink, the errors, lines of struck through text, and the trace memories of reading and re-reading, of written words pronounced out loud. What would be left? Even a few scraps clipped together has form, it becomes fleshed out and present. It is more real to us — and there is a reason for that.
Words on paper have body language and meaning, they hold a library of information that we don’t see or understand: a history of metadata that we cannot parse.
And yet, if you were reading this in a digital format you could access it anywhere, carry it without weight, share it, lose it, and, most of all, you could look at it on your phone. It is easy.
By the way, easy doesn’t make it digital. I don’t quite understand why an electronic book is described as digital, when it is no more digital than my TV, and significantly less digital than my phone. Neither of them get a ‘digital’ prefix. Indeed neither do I call it my ‘electronic telly’. These are books. As paperbacks are to hardbacks these new books are pixelbacks. All have their place.
Paper is nice. We mark our books. And they mark us back, they write notes in our margins, they fold over corners of our psyche - we will never escape the cumulative effect of our reading. Sometimes it is good to have a receipt of that journey.
What we lose when we digitise stuff
Here’s an important difference that makes sense if you work with compression algorithms.
Digitising things reduces the amount of information you have with which to understand its value.
Just as a film of Lady Gaga shot on a phone from your seat at the concert (why??) bears little comparison to being at the gig — so digitising other physical data (light, print, paint, speech) is not the same as experiencing the ‘data’ physically.
Film, TV and recorded music are fairly lossless — not the same, but not too bad — and so these art forms have been utterly transformed over the last forty years because they can be transported around the internet without the content being significantly affected. Conversely Theatre and Art experience a high loss experienced online - and, funnily enough, they really don’t care much about the internet.
If you could record the true experience of, say, going to the opera in a digital format and distribute it across the internet this would be called a ‘lossless’ format. There is no word for when you cannot record all the information - it would be a painful word. Lossful? *Everything* we record loses something along the way.
- TV and film is a visual recording of stories over time : designed to be ‘recorded’ and (now) distributed online, it is a fairly lossless experience.
[unless you are Tacita Dean]
- Recorded Music (as opposed to live performance) is a recording of audible sounds: digitally recorded, distributed, (even streamed online) it is relatively lossless.
[unless you are a hipster].
- Books are a way of sharing printed words and pictures : when not printed a book experiences a ‘loss’ of fidelity/metadata in comparison with its paper cousin.
- Theatre is a physical performance of stories : attempt to do this digitally (and I have) and there is much loss over the original physical experience.
- Art is hard to define and not easily recordable. It is easy to imagine the epic loss of fidelity of sharing a sculpture online.
By contrast some artists choose to work digitally — a medium in itself. Even sculptors can create 3d digital printed sculptures and distribute them. This has yet to set the world on fire, and you still lose something. There is relatively little that is best experienced on your phone.
Books? They are bang in the middle of this. Confused, but coping. Unlike film and music — the book industry is not being ‘disrupted’ by pirates — while admittedly there are a few seeders of illicit classical literature downloads — they are not exactly clogging up the internet.
Digital is like Latin.
[An attempt to explain why ‘digital’ is just as restrictive as Latin when compared to the utilitarianism of print.]
There are a number of similarities between Latin and <code>. Latin was used as a form of encryption (a language, like <code>) that was read, written and ‘shared’ by a few clerics (proprietary tech). Digital might be ubiquitous, and it might be transparent, but digital has a similar control factor.
Gutenberg unlocked the printed word from the clerical ‘ecosystem’ and Western culture went on to generate libraries of physical books (pBooks) that took many, many years to become unreadable (unless torn up by children or burnt by censors). Meanwhile, digital words are cheap and disposable, yet encrypted and fragile. Our dear readers are now dependent on infrastructure that they have no control over.
Physical books require light to ‘read’ them (daylight is free), someone has to pay to produce and distribute the book, but after that there are no further costs. eBooks require an eReader which tends to obsolescence, and a technology platform, they need power (which is not free), and finally, they require a license. “I am only granting you a license to read my book”, says the distributor, “we have a contract for the service I supply, not a product that you own or can resell, or donate”.
The number of ways that governments control the production and distribution of print pales in comparison with the dependencies required to read books in this new age. At the end of the day ecosystems are limited and limiting. Except www. Which we seem intent on killing off…
This is not real.
[These are just a collection of thoughts — so excuse the sharp tangential twists.]
Now it may seem strange coming from someone who works almost entirely with computers but I broadly dislike the false permanence of our screen-based reality. I believe in a future of digital that is more physical. We currently listen to digital music, play online games, take digital photos on digital phones that gather digital dust in folders in the cloud. Our lives have become ephemeral. Invisible. It is hardly surprising that the Millennials appear to really like ‘things’, to enjoy crafts and making objects — once a means of survival, now an indulgence of the leisured. The recent rise of artisanal practice is in tune with this change, along with the vinyl revival, and the focus on the book as an object rather than a vessel.
It is something of a truism that physical life without digital is fine, but digital life without physical is problematic. As an object a physical book is nice. Paper is real, we are real. Likewise organic surfaces, un-amplified sounds, and unprojected, reflected light are nearer to our natural state than small hand-held computers. This is one reason why the Kindle does so well with its reflected light and ambient display. There is a concept called biophilia(not the Bjork album) that suggests that we are innately happier with organic things — wood not plastic, sunlight over strip lights, ink on paper. Somehow this has never been tested scientifically, so never proven. Yet we know why bananas are slippery. Go figure.
It is noticeable that with our computers we are moving towards (or back towards) using voice and gesture, that we talk of an internet of things (including books) not an internet of computer portals. Let’s not pretend that we are about to rid ourselves of our reliance on the internet. It’s the access to information that is so addictive, not the shiny phones. (Mmmm). And however intoxicated we are by the internet, I don’t think we will overcome our instinctual discomfort until we find ways to fit information into organic materials. Let the things that we love show us the bits of information that are most useful to us: in the margin of a book you’re reading, or shimmering along a silk hem, or whispered by the tree you’re under.
Physical is visible.
Books used to be social. Historically you could share and distribute your manuscript or printed book in a small node-like system. Libraries. Communal, social, shared knowledge. This isn’t possible with electronic books. eBooks are anti-social, ‘shared’ only as advertisements to your friends on their social media encouraging them to pay for a license to read the same words.
I am not suggesting for a minute that paying for content isn’t completely right but sharing is an important aspect of our culture. We seem very keen to teach our children to ‘share’, but increasingly we have broken that model for adults.
Have we also lost the cultural status attached to the conspicuous consumption of literature? It no longer seems culturally significant to be seen to be well read, surrounded by ‘many leather-bound books’. So, what happened to that? Other forms of conspicuous cultural display: architecture, fashion, artworks, even DVD’s are still visible, but the library has condensed to a shelf of cookery books. In my last three homes we have built (or bought) bookcases, and I think, perhaps, that we use these so that other people, scanning the shelves, can know us by our books, rather than judge us on our Instagram ingenuity.
I value the efficiency of eBooks, but I value pBooks more: the tangible and enduring rather than the ephemeral. And at a selfish level, I want both. Why do I have to pay twice? Hardback and paperback, fine, two objects, two material things. But physical and electronic - why? I’d happily pay a surplus, sure, but not twice over. A book is a book: electronic or physical. It would be nice if the literary world could bundle physical editions with an eBook as the default. It is after all their industry.
Digital is not digital
Secret bonus list item: I should point out that all this talk about digitising is confusing because there is also the idea of digital books: dBooks.
To recap, the eBook is just the same as a pBook (just as a CD and vinyl are the ‘same’). The content is the same as the physical edition (with some loss). Overall very little has changed from it being ‘digitised’. There are enhancements: translations, notes, geolocations and definitions that pop and sing where my finger lingers. However this augmentation is very much at the edges of the content, it is peripheral to reading the story or what the words mean. For example the ground-breaking Small Demons (and now Beneath the Ink) explored the meta-information on the page, connecting the books and the worlds within the books, but it did not substantially affect the words, nor did it really affect our reading experiences. Mainly the difference is an electronic one - without electricity you have no book –hence eBook. A true digital book aims to use the digital infrastructure of our new world to create new ways of telling old stories.
Ultimately I work at Google, a company criticised (and pursued through the courts) for its misplaced desire to make all of the world’s literature available to everyone. Despite that bruising encounter there is still a multitude at Google that love books with a passion. And so now I’d like to talk about some new ideas for books. What happens when books are actually digital. i.e. when the ‘book’ could not exist without the internet. What about stories where the ubiquity of digital information is not incidental but integral to the narrative? Books where, without the internet, there is no book.
I can almost hear your eyes rolling in your head. WHY? Why would one bother disrupting and breaking something that we keep agreeing works so well? Why would anyone want to make books that won’t last and cannot be read when the internet goes down? Well I agree, I love books. But I love classical music, yet I don’t object to rock and roll, and since we’re there I am a secret fan of bleepy bloopy music, in fact I even like grime. Culture is a series of progressions, and progress is not necessarily a positive, it is directive, the opposite to regression. Stagnation is not something humans aspire to, we are curious, and I cannot help but wonder what a book with a beating heart of digital information might feel like or behave.
I am also sensitive to how hard it is for any creator to discard the centuries of experimentation that have given a form beauty. Literature has had hundreds of years to develop values, criticism, the concept of excellence. In many of my projects we ask artists to make clunky, misunderstood, challenging explorations of their form. That’s not easy - so I am always in awe of any artist, or movement, who are capable of challenging their core ideas. I want to ask writers to forget what is true and ask instead what immersion might mean in 100 years time.
Tantalising eh? But at the moment we don’t even know if we can do such a thing. Next year we are working towards a project we hope to call Digital Editions (after Creative Lab’s co-originators: Visual Editions), or maybe Virtual Editions, or Intangible Editions (we’re open to suggestions on the name) and our dream is that these editions could support writers (i.e. allow them to make money) and also create worlds that can only be experienced through reading that move beyond the metronomic form of words on page. Hopefully. Something like that. We will be learning as we go. Right now, today, I think maybe it is more a bookshop than the books. A flagship store, a Foyles for digital literature, a Point of Sale for Books that Cannot be Printed.
As always, we are far from first, not even early. Hypertext fiction and Storyspace have been with us since the earliest hours of the web(!). I first encountered digital literature in the late 90’s through Geoff Ryman’s 253, a fragmentary tale of lives in an underground car on the Bakerloo, which was written for the internet as a (conventional) non-linear hypertext book — you chose whose micro-biography to read via links — and it is irrevocably altered by the obligatory linearity of reading it in print. On the other hand it’s a lot easier to read in print. More recently there have been lots of projects and platforms devoted to experiencing literature in new ways — from epic book-art-esque collections like eliterature.org; to writers and poets building their own online worlds of words; to mobile-based stories like the remarkable The Silent History; classics like Penguin’s We Tell Stories; the simple genius of Joe Davis’s Telescopic Text; or Neal Stephenson’s audacious Mongoliad Cycle and there are many (many!) more. Last week I judged the 2015 bursary for The Literary Platform and was overwhelmed at the hundreds of writers and developers wanting to explore this space.
We intend to add to their number, or at least champion their work with something devoted to these books, books that cannot be printed. I am optimistic that it is a sign of a coming generation of literature that is bound to the cloud, not the page, nor the pixel.
There is the battle to make a space for coherent narrative within novel formats and to avoid ergodic trajectories. i.e. there will be a lot that we do that may seem naff or gimmicky. That is normal.
We would love to build a few of these ideas into platforms and open them up to authors to experiment with, or to the digital editors at our favourite publishers. We shall see. It is a writer-centric endeavour with the only restriction being that the books need to be digitally native. From commissioned authors to unknown new works, Invisible Editions (?) is about allowing new technologies to bend to their will as storytellers, and, yes, that may well feel a little clunky, but we should try, and unless we start the wait may never end.
A project to serve the next generation of experimental writers who dream but do not have the technological tools to produce their work; and to showcase, celebrate, and bring out digital books that are immersive and were written and developed with the idea of being digital. It is hard to promise exactly what this means or what it might look like, but, well, here goes:
my immediate favourite are books that follow you around the web, using up ad-space, so you can click or swipe through pages on a site (in-situ so to speak) and then later you visit a different website and there it is, where you left off.
the very many opportunities created by mapping books, building maps around books, or embedding books into map space.
books with additional content, characters, footnotes, tangents, whole other books that can be accessed by going sideways from a page rather than folio style.
using second or third screens around the house to show non-textual content, pictures, notes on characters, maps, video, timelines, or music as you reach certain pages in the book — your own personal background music.
books that relate content intimately to sensor data or personal data — so using the time, weather, mood, exercise, missed calls, music, location, smog level, or sleep history to affect the story.
books that change depending on the proximity to fellow readers / popn density / # of ice-cream vans nearby. The metric is not important, but how it might change a book and how we write for ‘dynamic’ stories.
books that start as single pages and which need to be gathered or shared by readers in order to construct the whole, although remaining ambiguous as to what the whole might be, or even the order.
books that allow for feedback loops within a novel that learn from the choices readers make and that informs the default text and future choices. (HAL meets choose-your-own-adventure).
books that adapt the narrative to reflect your real-time so if you stop reading in the morning by the evening the time in the book world will have moved forward too (not necessarily the story).
dBooks don’t really need to be paginal and we may do a whole section on other ways to design text for tablets and what that might do to the story. Bring back scrolls!
breaking the story into mobile-friendly feed-sized snippets and allowing readers to share or pin. The social story. (urgh).
I have a particularly unfeasible idea to create stories that are recorded by street-view captures over the next 20 or 100 years and that can only be read by traversing the world in streetview history mode, literally looping around in place and time.
books that can create and embed clues (photos, docs, recordings) around your device, or around geography, or the internet, to be found / reveal as the story is unravelled.
books that are delivered daily, weekly, monthly or that look at your calendar and respond to it, building you into stories as third-parties.
books that invite you to discuss the plot and then generate your story from the reader sentiment around the book as you are reading it. So the book is forever in a state of feedback-driven flux.
And a million other ways too. As I’ve already hinted at — progress is not linear, and we may need many broken formats to climb over. We will have a team building (some of) these formats. And what we will also need are great writers.
Great writers can weave time and space together, allow you to be in many worlds simultaneously, to time-travel and step outside your body. To inhabit alternate consciousness. This is not grandiose, this is fairly objective. One of the dangers is that by focusing on the social and commercial benefits of digitisation we forget that one of the simplest pleasures is absorption. Can the algorithm valuably disrupt or does it break the thread, lose the plot? Is interactive compatible with immersive? Is this a good idea, or (another) really bad one?
We face a set of threats and opportunities.
We have discovered the possibility of making all content accessible to everyone, but we have abandoned the form which bound the content and gave it context and meaning.
We have opened up fantastic opportunities to explore and innovate within writing, and placed them beyond the reach of writers.
We have slowly shifted the art of reading into the act of interaction.
We have made everything possible, but possibly damaged the integrity of physical engagement.
There is (always) a next generation of readers that must be given a heightened experience of deep, sensory reading, not a diminished one - blending digital and physical properties. A generation to whom reading in every form must be championed. Our experiments are for them, but we hope you will join us on the journey.
NB: If the questions or ideas in this essay interest you please join the mailing list for this new project that we hope to start work on in 2015.
Originally published at www.tomu.co on December 22, 2014.