The future of the book shouldn’t be skeuomorphic

We should replace books with something different and better, writes Tom Abba.

The future of publishing has been on its way for a while.

Yet with notable exceptions like The Silent History on iPad, the knee-jerk reaction of the publishing industry has been to copy the form of a physical book, skeuomorphically, creating something that bears a resemblance to print but doesn’t do much else besides.

This is a huge missed opportunity, because the digital medium itself is full of opportunities for literary content. Tablet computers can provide much more than a flat surface on which to read typed words. They afford a whole new platform that draws on the contract between the author and the reader, but needn’t restrict itself to physical analogues. The possibilities aren't bound to the book.

Some authors have already begun addressing this. Nick Harkaway explored networked collaboration in his writing allowing readers to be instrumental in developing a story. While as offline readers we interact with the book as a physical object, as digital readers we are able to explore the relationship between form and content, such that each can become implicit in the creation of the other. Reading a narrative encased in a physical object, our input to the story is limited by its very physicality, but as digital readers, we can comment, note, question and add within a network, changing the nature of the written text.

There is a programme based at Watershed in Bristol and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council called REACT: Books & Print, which explores the future of publishing in a way that allows for real experimentation with digital platforms, without the pressure to sell a commercial product in the short term. As part of the programme, I am working with the artists collective Circumstance and authors Nick Harkaway and Neil Gaiman on a project called These Pages Fall Like Ash, wherein an audience based in Bristol will be invited to participate in a narrative experience: accessing, altering and constructing a story that will demonstrate the possibilities of the form and challenge traditional publishing norms.

Try this at home: watch an episode of The Bridge—with subtitles—and try to browse Facebook, or send a tweet during the broadcast. What you're likely to find (unless you're a native Danish speaker) is that conventional second screen engagement doesn’t operate very well. On the one hand, it’s the subtitles; they demand we look as well as listen, that our eyeballs don’t flicker between device and screen and our attention fixes on one thing rather than two, but another, more subtle change, is in architecture and the lighting, in mise-en-scène. The sky is different and the city looks strange. These people aren’t speaking our language and something exotic is happening.

That’s the sensation we’re aiming to achieve in These Pages Fall Like Ash. The experience begins with the sudden appearance of another city alongside the one our 300 participants live in. They can’t see it, but they can feel its presence, hear the voices of its citizens and read their words. Two populations start to communicate and exchange ideas, stories, gifts, and then something happens. And something happening is how stories start.

Story is at the heart of this project. REACT’s Books and Print programme asks us to consider what happens when digital technology meets reading and writing. Our response is to define a grammar for writing in a digital space, where attention is a commodity and interaction is an anticipated mode of engagement. We chose to work with two writers who have each, in their own way, explored the grammar of writing platforms—be that television, comics, novels or radio—and whose voices we can add to our own, and those of our audience to create something singularly new.

The city and its twin isn’t a new idea though. Whether you look for recent examples - China Mieville's The City and The City, and Nick’s experiments with Urm, Neil's Neverwhere, or head back a little further for Michal Ajvaz' The Other City and M John Harrison’s In Viriconium, Moorcock’s Tanelorn or Borges’ Uqbar, the notion that something else, something uncanny, lurks at the corners of our attention is a provocative one and as a framework for a distributed, exploded story form, it practically demands other voices to add to the canon, to world-build. Our readers will experience another city, alongside their own, and will be asked to bring it into being by their own writing and contributions.

Running through These Pages Fall Like Ash though, are a set of questions about writing and digital spaces. Writing is a craft, one that’s learned over time and honed by experience and profligate use of words, sentences, dialogue and character to build story and ground narrative. We’ve asked our writers to help us scaffold the story and provide a substrate by which we write, design and develop the content through interaction. Our audience are going to engage with digital content alongside physical books, artefacts that cross the boundaries between two worlds and two technologies. They’re going to learn to write for an unfamiliar medium, and their writing will impact the way they view the narrative at its completion.

It could be the start of an astonishing journey, the story of the evolution of the written word in the digital age.

Tom Abba is taking part in the Books & Print Sandbox, part of REACT, one of four UK Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy. It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). REACT Books & Print

An iBooks book.

Tom Abba has worked with the materiality of interactive narrative since 2001. His PhD addressed interactive story as an author-determined construction and his manifesto publication, This is Not a Book (Macmillan, 2013), is forthcoming.

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit