My books are better thought about than read. They’re insanely dull and unreadable; I mean, do you really want to sit down and read a year’s worth of weather reports or a transcription of the 1010 WINS traffic reports “on the ones” (every ten minutes) over the course of a twenty-four-hour period? I don’t. But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about, to dip in and out of, to hold, to have on your shelf. In fact, I say that I don’t have a readership, I have a thinkership. I guess this is why what I do is called “conceptual writing.” The idea is much more important than the product…
My favorite books on my shelf are the ones that I can’t read, like Finnegans Wake, The Making of Americans, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or The Arcades Project. I love the idea that these books exist. I love their size and scope; I adore their ambition; I love to pick them up, open them at random, and always be surprised; I love the fact that I will never know them. They’ll never go out of style; they’re timeless; they’re always new to me. I wanted to write books just like these. I think you hit it just right when you spoke of reference books. I never wanted my books to be mistaken for poetry or fiction books; I wanted to write reference books. But instead of referring to something, they refer to nothing. I think of them as ’pataphysical reference books.
For more on pataphysics (which I don’t think really needs that apostrophe), aka “the science of imaginary solutions,” read this.
I also found this fascinating, especially coming from the man who wrote “If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist” (back in 2005):
I’ve made a move in the Luddite direction recently by trying to remove UbuWeb from Google. I want the site to be more underground, more word-of-mouth. The only way you’ll be able to find it is if someone links to it or tells you about it, just like music used to be before MTV. But you’ll still find UbuWeb on all the bad search engines that no one uses: AltaVista, Dogpile, and Yahoo! Again, everyone wants to rush toward the center: they even write books about how to get your Google ranking higher. We’re headed in the opposite direction. We want to get off Google.
But actually, even if you go back to that 2005 essay, it has this gorgeous coda, under the subhed “The New Radicalism”:
In concluding, I’m going to drop a real secret on you. Used to be that if you wanted to be subversive and radical, you’d publish on the web, bypassing all those arcane publishing structures at no cost. Everyone would know about your work at lightening speed; you’d be established and garner credibility in a flash, with an adoring worldwide readership.
Shhhh… the new radicalism is paper. Right. Publish it on a printed page and no one will ever know about it. It’s the perfect vehicle for terrorists, plagiarists, and for subversive thoughts in general. In closing, if you don’t want it to exist — and there are many reasons to want to keep things private — keep it off the web.
Something to think about, when you’re too busy not reading.
Seriously, if you are thinking, yawn a post about old books, please: just click that link and scroll halfway down the page and stare at those images for a second. Those layers of handwriting peeking up out of history. I don’t know about you, but it gives me the creeps, in a good way.
This comment from Robinson Meyer over on Google+ kinda blows my mind. We’ve been chatting about fandoms and Harry Potter, and Robinson says:
But the best part of Harry Potter, for me, came in the reading of the first few chapters of each new book. It was like meeting old friends. I’d discover every time that Harry and I had both grown up a little, had emotionally become more sophisticated, and that we also had that same old warm rapport and that same old love for each other. And, on top of that, I was back in Harry’s joyous world, the world that began when I was in 2nd grade, about to find out what was going to happen next! It was like seeing a friend for the first time in three years and picking up the conversation (about his more interesting life) right where we’d left off. It’s funny, but without a doubt reading the first few chapters of Books 5, 6, and 7 are among my happiest memories.
“[R]eading the first few chapters of Books 5, 6, and 7 are among my happiest memories.” That kinda blows my mind.
It also makes me realize that I had no comparable experience as a young reader. There was no fantasy epic being released/revealed as I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s. The closest approximation is probably Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which I loved in middle and high school, but… well, yeah. If you know the meta-story of Wheel of Time you know why that wasn’t the most satisfying tale to follow along with.
Seriously, I can’t even fully articulate why—but I am sorta obsessed with the last few lines of Robinson’s comment. It’s almost a recipe. Engineer that, somehow, and you win.
One of the most valuable contributions a person can make to an emerging field is to help build its vocabulary. It can be neologism (as in cyberspace) or it can be reappropriated language (as in stock and flow) or it can simply be strong words used with care—as in the following example.
- Formless: ePub, Mobi, HTML
- Definite: PDF, EPUB3 (HTML5/CSS3)
- Interactive: iOS / Android, EPUB3 (HTML5/CSS3)
And he explains:
Formless refers to content that has no inherent visual structure, and for which the meaning doesn’t change as the words reflow. Think: paperback novels.
Definite refers to content for which the structure of the page—the juxtaposition of elements—is intertwined with the meaning of the text. Think: textbooks.
Interactive is, of course, for works that necessitate some interactive component: video, non-linear storytelling, etc.
Formless and definite in particular (also discussed in an earlier piece from Craig) are the terms that best articulate the tension I feel today with the Kindle. On one hand: I love it. On the other hand: the uniform typeface… the arbitrary pagination… books aren’t just strings of characters!!, I want to scream. And yet, sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re formless. Aha. I get it now.
Here’s the true test of new lingo: does it stick in your head and present itself, again and again, in the face of fresh experience? So far, the answer for me with Craig’s trifecta is yes. These are the words I use to organize my own experience of the (crazy new publishing) world, and just as importantly, these are the words I use to scheme about its future. (P.S. I’m totally on Team Definite.)
What a thing, this link that’s being passed around, posted on Boing Boing and tweeted all over the place! The letters to the children of Troy: congratulatory messages solicited from writers, politicians, and other famous folk to commemorate the opening of the first stand-alone library in Troy, Michigan, way back in 1971.
Isaac Asimov’s index-card letter has gotten a lot of play:
E. B. White’s speaks more seriously to me, and mostly for his last line:
But it’s the letter from Clifton Wharton, then-president of MSU, that strikes me most deeply. You wouldn’t be able to guess just by reading it, I don’t think—it’s solid, but not soaring:
On the surface, this whole collection is such a cute little thing, so easy to write off: just a bunch of folksy letters sent to a new library in a suburban town. (By the way: who would even send such letters today? Or ask for them?) Lovely. Let’s move on to the next link.
But here’s the thing. I grew up in Troy, Michigan; this library, the subject of all this celebration, was my library. I spent a significant fraction of the mid-80s and early 90s in there, migrating from the Choose Your Own Adventure books on the spinning wire racks to the science fiction and fantasy novels on the long low shelves. I can still draw you a map of the place, and roughly plot Dewey decimal ranges. I can still remember the mechanical swish of the automatic door, the cold AC in the foyer, the lignin smell. I can remember whole sensory macros: my dad pulling the car up to the curb; me hopping out, hustling to the entrance; the whoosh-thunk of books going down the after-hours chute; the turn, the sprint.
And here’s the other thing. I went to school at Michigan State and grew into myself on the campus that Clifton Wharton helped build. I walked past the building marked with his name hundreds of times—maybe more. Maybe a thousand. And I mean, my god: I met Tim Carmody on that campus!
So this little correspondence cracked like lightning in my head. I mean, it’s no big deal; it’s a small thing, it’s a letter, they were both in Michigan, it makes perfect sense. And yet, and yet. Clifton Wharton, president of Michigan State University, and Marguerite Hart, librarian of Troy: a tangible thread connected them. And as soon as you realize that, you can’t help but imagine the other threads, the other connections, that all together make a net, woven before you were born, before you were even dreamed of—a net to catch you, support you, lift you up. Libraries and universities, books and free spaces—all for us, all of us, the children of Troy everywhere.
What fortune. Born at the right time.
If you are a child reading this, you should go home and make a Hawaiian flower lei—you get a needle and thread and sew the flowers together into a ring—and put it around the neck of the City of Troy librarian. It will tell her that you are grateful for the gift of books and of wisdom and of aloha found in the libraries of the world, and especially—for you—in Troy. And if she laughs and cries at the same time, pay no attention. That’s the way librarians always act when they’re very happy and grateful […]
And it’s not the librarian laughing and crying at the same time here; it’s me. Every time I’ve read these letters, it’s me.
Al Gore and interactive books! This blog post was made for me!
The interactions are super-slick—a trademark of the Push Pop Press platform. But if you ask me, it’s all a bit too textbook. For some reason everybody thinks non-fiction and educational stuff is the right content for this awesome new canvas, and I think it’s a mistake.
Here’s my prediction: the first truly meaningful (and truly popular) interactive book isn’t going to be about the environment or science or history. It’s going to be an absolutely jaw-dropping children’s book.
Science fiction is never really about the future—instead, it’s an interesting way to talk about the present. For decades, the genre huddled in the shade of the space race and the Cold War, because those were the dramas of the day. And it was in science fiction, I think, that we actually talked about them most honestly—about both our highest hopes (e.g. Star Trek) and our deepest fears (e.g. The Terminator—really a Cold War movie, and barely about robots at all).
So what’s present now? I think the next few really great works of science fiction—including, maybe, the next great science fiction movie—are going to be about food.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl is the most original, bracing work of science fiction I’ve read in years. It’s as if somebody got into my house, walked right up to a door I’d never noticed, opened it wide and led me through into the corridor beyond. Of course, I’m saying to myself. Why didn’t I ever think to look here?
Bacigalupi paints a world of pandemic plagues, mass migrations, genetically-modified food, sealed-off hermit kingdoms and “calorie men” from agribusiness giants who behave more like secret agents than sales reps. All together, it’s dark, rich, weird, and compelling.
(It’s worth noting that I’d put Bacigalupi on the shelf next to Margaret Atwood right now. Atwood’s latest books come across, to me, as fairy tales, albeit dark ones. Bacigalupi weaves a broader tapestry. And we’re still waiting for our bio-Tolkien.)
Bacigalupi’s book made me think, as I was reading, of the history of wine and the “suitcase clones”—cuttings from legendary vineyards smuggled from Europe to America. There’s a bit of secret agent in that, too. It made me think of the Phylloxera plague that flowed back into European vineyards like an electrical current seeking the ground, scorching the earth. (You might know this already, but: almost every European grape now grows on American rootstock.)
It made me think of Jason Rezaian’s Kickstarter project to start the first avocado farm in Iran. (Just stop and think about that for a second. More secret agent stuff!)
It made me think of the colonization of America—the craziest most improbable post-apocalyptic sci-fi story of all, and fundamentally a story of biology.
There’s something here. The future hurtles toward us in the shape of… an avocado. In the shape of a pluot. In the shape of an asian carp. Forget Gattaca; genetic engineering’s crazy excesses are going to hit us in the bodega, not the bedroom. And forget Skynet; the real apocalypse starts when all the fish die.
This is what we’re worried about now. I think that, in the U.S. on any given day, more units of stress and dread are expended in the name of food than in the name of terrorist attacks. Of course, on TV we talk about terrorist attacks. In the President’s Daily Brief, they talk about terrorist attacks. But the dark layer of doom blooming silently beneath the surface—that’s food. (Well, I mean. Actually it’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico. But metaphorically! Food.)
I feel like this is such fertile ground, not only because it’s actually important (it is) but also because it’s so commercial! You could totally put a sci-fi food show on cable TV: Anthony Bourdain meets Bladerunner. You could sell a sci-fi food thriller to the entire West Coast of the United States: Michael Pollan meets William Gibson.
But that’s all good. That’s a start. That’s how we begin to talk about these big scary things that spread out beneath the surface of our whole society, right here, today: we pretend we’re talking about the future instead.
Paul Carr at TechCrunch has the best take on the “ads in books” hysteria kicked up by the WSJ (original article conveniently paywalled) I’ve read yet. It’s even smartly titled “Eat Pay Love”:
The crux of the argument is this: books are the only word-based medium currently free of advertising (unless you count the pages full of ads for other books at the back of most mass market paperbacks). This isn’t – as you might think – because ads kill our enjoyment of literature (many magazines publish fiction surrounded by commercial messages) but rather because until now it’s been difficult to sell ad space in books. The lead times in publishing – and the shelf-life of paperbacks – are simply too long to deliver timely commercial offerings: who hasn’t experienced the amusement of picking up an old paperback and being invited to send off for the previous title in the series for just 25c?
But now, thanks to e-readers, all that is changing. With electronic books, ads can be served dynamically, just like they are online – not only does that remove the problem of out-of-date ads being stuck in old books, but it also allows messages to be tailored to the individual reader. Those reading the Twilight books at the age of 14 can be sold make-up and shoes and all of the other things teenage girls need to attract their very own Edward. Meanwhile, those still reading the books at 35 can be sold cat food. Lots and lots of cat food.
Why, that sounds fantastic! What’s the problem again?
It’s a compelling argument, but like so many compelling arguments made about the future of books, it’s also hampered by consisting almost entirely of bullshit. For one thing, publishers are really not geared up to sell ads: they’d have to recruit armies of ad sales people who would be forced to actually sit down and read the novels and historical memoirs and chick-lit-churn-outs that they’d be selling against. Not going to happen.
Now that’s very true. That scenario will not happen.
If only there were some large company with a dominant position in the e-book business that had lots of demographic data about what you read and other things that you buy online who could whip up a smart software algorithm that automatically generated product recommendations based on this information, who’d be willing, I don’t know, to electronically host and deliver these ads in the e-books on behalf of the publishers, in exchange for a fee, or better terms on each sale of a book.
Yep, if there were a company or three like that in the e-book market today, then we’d be talking about something.
Behold: the iPad and the Kindle under a microscope.
I find the Kindle’s startling resemblance to real ink on real paper really appealing, and it makes me want to get my Kindle out again. I’ve been all-iPad for awhile now, but under the microscope, it’s revealed for what it is: a very, very clever imposter.
To be clear: that’s totally okay. Sometimes imposters turn out to be an improvement on the real thing. (There’s a fable about that, right? If not: there should be.) (Oh, right.)
I’m also quite moved—no exaggeration—by the images of real ink at 400X magnification. Ah, right: it’s tree-parts down there. It’s a sticky black substance slathered across the fissures of a flattened web of fiber. It’s stuff. The words are the soul; the book is the body.
(Via Avi Bryant.)
- It’s a detailed, quantitative account of a successful Kickstarter project, full of useful findings.
- It’s about the (or at least a) future of publishing. (And it features a really nice-looking book.)
- It’s beautifully designed! Great typography, great photography, great spreadsheets (!), all assembled in a really readable way. Super-super-impressive.
And I think there might be another level on which it is awesome that I have not yet identified.