Last week, the New York Public Library’s InstaNovels project won a Webby Award for Best Use of Social Media. This popular initiative took works of literature from the public domain – Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example – and designed the entire text for display on Instagram. Animation, music and page turns, along with tutorials and mini-trailers, attracted the attention of thousands, and the award was the icing on the cake.
This is a good example of what the internet is doing to books: making them a part of the weightless economy. Such loss of weight isn’t just to do with shucking off paper and binding, as with the e-book. It’s also about finding new ways of creating narratives, and then diffusing them in time and space.
To begin with, there’s hypertext fiction, briefly popular in the early 1990s, in which the reader was required to move from one piece of text to another in whatever manner she chose. It’s these individual decisions that determined the path of the narrative. (Bandersnatch, anyone?) This method has been traced back to the work of writers such as Borges, Cortazar, and even Nabokov, though I’m sure the latter would have turned up his aristocratic nose at the thought.
In a 2013 issue of Wired, Steven Johnson made the point that this “branching path of overlapping narratives” never really took off largely because they were very hard to write: “it wound up creating a whole host of technical problems, the main one being that you had to reintroduce characters or concepts in every section.” Over and above that, hypertext’s pleasures are those of the puzzle, I would think: it’s hard to imagine it delivering the weightiness of immersion in a single narrative.
Johnson also says that readers did take the principle of hypertext fiction and explore ideas by jumping from node to node; it’s just that these nodes were in different places, written by different people. You go from a tweet to a link to a news article, to a blog, and so on. (A pleasant way to spend many hours, as we all know.)
Integrating books with the digital world
More recently, the creators of The Silent History tried to take a single story and spread it out over the experiences of different writers and readers. Authors Eli Horowitz, Kevin Moffett and Matthew Derby called this a novel “written and designed specially for iPad and iPhone, that uses serialisation, exploration, and collaboration.”
The Silent History imagined an SF scenario in which children fail to acquire language. The ramifications of this were explained through weekly “testimonials” from parents, teachers, doctors, cult leaders, faith healers, and government officials. Then, there were “field reports”, which were accounts from specific locations. Readers were encouraged to visit these sites and when their device’s GPS matched the coordinates of the location, they wrote their own short accounts.
Thus, The Silent History tried to present something completely new: not just serialised, but also interdisciplinary and interactive. After the year-long exercise ended, the contents of the app were published as a print book. One has to wonder whether that didn’t mitigate the point of the project.
Hypertext and app-based narratives make serious attempts to expand and integrate books with the digital world and come up with something greater than the sum of their parts. Efforts continue, with people working on what is variously called interactive fiction, locative narratives and the flash poem. Weightlessness here is quick-fingered, trying to create the ability to float as well as swoop down in satisfying ways.
Summaries of books
Other attempts ride on a more undesirable aspect of buoyancy, that of being simply airy. The expression “life hacks” enters the picture; as one website puts it, “everyone is looking for self-improvement and business growth.” To scratch this itch, apps and websites create summaries of books for readers to quickly grasp their main aspects – often presented in the form of bullet points. That this feels like a PowerPoint presentation is no accident: these are nuggets that give the impression of information by summing up everything in a jiffy. Complexity, depth and the ability to reason things out for oneself are given the go-by.
To be fair, most of the books summarised are related to marketing, business and self-help. The titles that predominate are to do with working fewer hours or the habits of highly effective people. How long, though, before fiction is treated the same way? (Anna Karenina was a bored housewife of St Petersburg. She had an affair. She paid the price.)
Before all of this takes over completely, we still have books with weight, the ones with binding and paper. They should be treated with respect, which is why that recent social media meme which ruined books for a laugh by using food and drink in place of bookmarks was so distasteful. Brands trying to use books to be cool should take a leaf from the New York Public Library instead.