Reform Acts – Ergodic literature and making the most of paper

Image from Retro Games Appreciation

Image from Retro Games Appreciation

One of the big conversations across publishing since at least 2007, when the Kindle was launched, has been the eBook. Breaking free of paper and ink has proven liberating for publishers and writers alike but has also revealed divides between those who have embraced digital and those who reject it.

We’ve all had the conversation about ‘just preferring the feel of a book’. We all know how we feel about it one way or the other (and for the record I’m a fence-sitter who loves beautiful books but also reads digitally and finds all that fascinating and powerful stuff). What we hold matters to us.

But what this conversation doesn’t account for is that the form of the story hasn’t really changed. Dead tree or code, the stories all start with the opening sentence, followed by lots of sentences in a linear fashion ultimately leading to the final words, and hopefully satisfaction. Which begs the question, if we live in the age of computing, with a burgeoning games industry and interactive everythings, handheld touchscreen computers and thousands of sophisticated interactions a day, why are we so conservative about the shape of a story?

If we’re being honest as book people, as a community: Do you ever worry that app developers are showing us all up?

Interactive fiction games are making a come back. To pick just a few examples (and there are many) from recent years we have Device 6, the creepy as all hell fiction puzzle game, Her Story, an interactive crime documentary which has you picking through video interviews to solve the case and the star-studded Broken Age (from the makers of the glorious Day of the Tentacle) reminding us what made the point-and-click adventures great. They’ve realised they’re holding incredible devices and are experimenting with narrative.

So what about books? The modern novel is a relatively recent idea and there have been dramatic shifts in form since then. I grew up on game books of all kinds, from Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, Choose Your Own Adventure, Sagard the Barbarian, Assassin and more. The potential stories fascinated me, as did flicking back and forth, fingers holding pages just in case.

The thing we forget is that books can do all sorts of things apps can’t. That physical relationship is absolutely invaluable and full of potential. So here are a few examples offered as inspiration for fellow lovers of pressed dead tree.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Doubleday, 2000)

This is a twist on the haunted house story, about a documentary maker and his family discovering strange spaces in their home. We’re talking corridors appearing, new doorways opening, revealing a growling, entropic labyrinth to explore. Everything about this story is fundamentally weird because it’s about voids and spaces. But the fascinating thing about this book is how it’s constructed. Because the story is told by Johnny Truant, an unreliable and troubled narrator, who is reading the work of blind academic Zampanò who was researching something called The Navidson Record which may or may not actually exist. It’s a meta-literary narrative bonanza.

And Danielewski really runs with the idea. Truant peppers his account with asides, footnotes commenting on Zampanò’s footnotes. You’re flicking between appendices and photos from the purported films and then . . . you enter the house.

It’s not without it’s flaws as a story but the craft involved is immense and the vision of what a book can be is incredible.

Picture from Into the Abyss

Picture from Into the Abyss

S. by Doug Dorst, based on J.J. Abrams' idea (Little, Brown, 2013)

Yes, that J.J. Abrams. So someone outside the book industry wanting to deconstruct the form. S. has a similar conceit to House of Leaves in that it is based around a fictional source text, this time university library edition of The Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. Except no-one knows who Straka is and there’s a race amongst global academics to unearth his identity. The extra layer to the story concerns a student and a disgraced academic – the only people who read this book – who start communicating through notes in the margins. They set to work on uncovering Straka’s identity and pretty soon start leaving each other notes, photos, even a map doodled on a napkin.

Again, there are flaws in the book, mainly around Straka’s status as literary genius – a bar Dorst sets for The Ship of Theseus but doesn’t quite meet – but this also misses the import of this book.

The attention to detail is almost perfect (the only imperfection was that the hand-written notes are printed, but I can’t begrudge them that!) with every insert printed on appropriate stock, every detail worked. The napkin really is a napkin. It’s a ludicrously indulgent piece of production and a brave attempt to break apart how nested narratives can be deployed. It simply wouldn’t have worked as a traditional book.

Picture from Happy Book Lovers

Picture from Happy Book Lovers

Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock (Chronicle Books, 1991)

Griffin is an artist who makes postcards for a living. Sabine is an artist who illustrates postage stamps. They’ve never met but one day she sends him a postcard, and their correspondence begins.

It’s a love story between two people who never meet, who build their relationship solely through their words and pictures. As a text it's brief, but the narrative exists in more than just the words. The books you hold are literally the totality of their relationship and the tactile relationship of opening letters makes you share in the experience of their story, as well as the narrative. That’s a pretty neat idea.

Picture from BackTalk

Picture from BackTalk

Arcadia by Iain Pears

This is on my reading list because I’ve dipped my toes in. It’s available as a physical book and app and is curiously the most traditional of the examples given here. The app is based on the book and not the other way round, which means first and foremost it’s a linear story. Or a few linear stories... 

What the app allows, is free movement between chapters. You choose which of 10 characters to follow, meaning that there are a large number of ways to read the story. It also means you have to read it multiple times to capture everything. It’s the kind of thing I can see working well for crime, where the differences between people’s memories and perceptions become very important. 

Picture by Bustle.com

Picture by Bustle.com