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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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses