Baldur Bjarnason and I are writing a book. It’s about books, electronic textuality and materiality and is a manifesto of sorts. I suggested a few weeks ago that we might blog sections of it while we go, partly to make public some of our thoughts, but also as a declaration of intent. The book (it’s draft title is, appropriately enough, ‘this is not a book’) is designed to exist as a digital text-in-process. I’m not sure of the shape of the digital edition yet – we’re working that through as we write, but I’m going to hold to the intent of public debate – to an extent for the time being – and share some of our thoughts as we go along.
The first chapter goes to the (potential) editor this week. Here’s an extract:
“Of course, it’s not quite appropriate to liken a multi-decade old medium to a toddler. A more appropriate analogy would be a teenager at a dance, trying to flirt for the first time, a person who is still rocketing through change trying their first tentative steps at what they see to be a grownup thing. The advent of tablet computers and the rise of ebooks has given us several choice examples, digital writing attempting to charm the pants off somebody and, for the first time, facing the terrifying possibility of succeeding.
The advances digital writing is making are on three fronts:
- Phone and tablet apps: native applications go the furthest in experimenting with tactics and methods that are unique to digital media.
- Websites: the most widespread form of digital, or neoteric, writing, also the one that is the most established and set as a genre.
- Ebooks: the form of digital writing that clings the hardest to the conventions, codes, and practices of print media, often going to extraordinary technical lengths to disable tropes means that are native to digital media.
Touchpress’ (supported by Faber and Faber) The Wasteland stands out amongst recent impositions of literary works to a digital environment. Taking Elliot’s 434 lines as it’s starting point, the iPad app deconstructs the experience of reading a linear poem, and re-presents the digital text as an exploration of meaning, significance and context by means of Ezra Pound’s annotations to Elliot’s draft, (etc). Strip away the technically mediated, affective layer of The Wasteland’s iPad instantiation and it is evident that the app is designed around the materially original (one might suggest scroll-like) format of the poem. The app does not simply remediate that form though; slavishly transferring its affordances to a new platform and intending the work to be read in an identical manner as its physical counterpart; it undergoes a process of transposition by which the material original is not copied, nor removed, rather its affordances as a ‘readable’ text are addressed within the transfer to a new formal environment. We are encouraged, as students of Elliot, to read The Wasteland with a book of annotations beside us. The app affords this. We are familiar with the nuance of the spoken word with regard to poetry; interpretation, emphasis, temporal specificity all impact in meaning; the app presents readings from 1933 (Elliot) through to contemporary performances (Fiona Shaw’s filmed performance) by way of Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes and Viggo Mortensen. We approach Elliot’s work as acolytes, as scholars, a position the app enforces.
Flipboard is an app that aggregates various news items, blog posts, pictures, videos, etc., from all over the net. It’s both mass media – it has a curated set of news feeds you can read – and micro media, with its deep customisability. Being an aggregator is unique enough to digital media but Flipboard has taken a central role, not only in setting design trends but also because of the lead its lead designer, Craig Mod, has taken in online discourse on the nature of digital writing. It manages to take its inspiration from offline print affordances while still remaining uniquely digital. The folding pagination animation it uses refers to the act of turning a physical page but actually represents an act that is impossible in print, pages just don’t turn like that. No matter what you think about its nature as an aggregator and no matter what you think of the writings of its lead designer, the app itself represents a mature understanding on how digital can reuse print affordances without being a slave to them.
Visual Editions (a London-based boutique publisher of bespoke editions) venture into the book-App market has, to date, been an edition of Marc Saporta’s Composition No.1. Saporta’s original text – a boxed ‘novel’ printed on 150 unbound pages which asks the reader to shuffle and read in any order, deriving meaning from accidental juxtaposition and aleatory connection – is repurposed for a tablet platform in exactly the same format as the physical original. The reader lets pages skim past, only stopping to read when a finger is pressed upon the screen. The page rests as long as a connection is maintained, upon removal, the motion begins again and a new, randomly chosen page is revealed at the next intervention. Once a page has been read, it cannot (in that sequence) be re-read. The digital edition, curiously, is more successful than Saporta’s 1962 print experiment. The sensation induced by our inability to accurately control the next page we read is more pronounced than in the boxed edition. No-one who has ever shuffled a deck of cards can deny that control is always present to some degree. Magicians make careers of it. Within a digital instantiation of the same process, human intervention is reduced to a truly random moment, and there is no going back. Like The Wasteland before it though, Composition No.1 is built on a thorough and considered understanding of the material process of reading its physical forebear.
Robin Sloan’s recently published ‘digital essay’ Fish, though, is conceived as a digitally-native piece of work. Experienced as a hypertextually linear journey through deliberately short, typographically considered words, sentences and provocations, Sloan demands that we slow down, that we read each smartphone-sized page in of itself. There is no skimming, no skipping ahead or back, as we quickly realise the consequence of not paying sufficient attention is to miss something we won’t experience again (internally aware, the essay makes mention of Sloan’s, and the reader’s, habit of not returning to material on the internet more than once, unlike a favourite book or film).”