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Nov 2, 2010

The Book Singularity

Proponents of the Singularity believe that humans will one day transcend biology. There are different versions, but one theory is that humans will all become uploaded into digitally stored data strings, existing in a purely virtual environment.

I'm skeptical about that.

But another Singularity Event does appear to be nigh. The Book Singularity. Books will transcend their traditional physical form, and become not just different, but more than they were.

Is the Book Singularity at hand? Libroid thinks so, and has some alternatives for the hyper-book future:

Enter Libroid, which creator Neffe -- a veteran journalist for Germany's Der Spiegel magazine and author of a best-selling book on Charles Darwin -- hopes will beat its own path to success.

The program, which currently runs only on Apple's iPad tablet computer, splits the traditional book page into three columns, allowing authors space to annotate their text with footnotes, images, maps, videos and web links.

Libroid delivers the book's core text in the middle of the page. Two smaller columns on either side carry the extra content. Page numbers are abandoned in favor of a percentage bar that tells readers where they are.

Interactive elements allow readers to make their own comments on virtual book clubs that can be linked up to the text. It also offers authors the possibility of updating their own work (something that U.S. author Jonathan Franzen might appreciate after the wrong draft of his latest novel was published in the UK).

With Libroid publications also allowing readers to flit between different translations of the text, Neffe said he believes the added extras, plus a lower price tag, will set it apart from standard e-books.

Though circumspect about its chances for success, he said it does have several major selling points, not least the potential to generate a new medium for fiction writers who, he says, are already lining up to try it out.

This is standard enhanced book stuff. Okay, I'm saying "standard" even though enhanced books are far from standard yet! But this part was not new to me. However, this was:

Neffe agrees, saying although he has been bombarded by suggestions from authors, he is choosing carefully. One winning idea, he says, is the "round book."

"Round books are those with no beginning and no end. Experienced authors tell me they have problems because every linear story has centrifugal forces that try to get out from the center.

"There is a well-known author in Germany who writes crime stories. He wants to randomly mix chapters so you would be the judge in the criminal case.

"You get nine different reports from witnesses and when you shake it up, they will mix up, so you always start with different one. Every reader is having a different experience."

Nonlinear books aren't entirely new. Remember the old Choose Your Own Adventure books? Ah, the memories.

Joe Konrath has written a send-up of one of these, what he calls, "Write Your Own Damn Story" Adventure which he claims will, "push ebook technology to the boundaries of reading enjoyment, or something like that."

Much as I love 'em, these kind of books do have one drawback, which is that they break the fourth wall. That works for some stories, especially funny ones, but usually I like to immerse myself in the world of the book. I like the feeling it is all "real" on its own terms, that there is a certain way it "actually" happened.

However, the "round book" idea is different from the choose-your-story idea. The round book can still assume there was a "true" history, a "way it really happened." The illusion of fact, the fourth wall, can remain intact. All that changes are the order in which you discover them. It's as if you were given an easy option to watch Lost in either the order shown or actual chronological order, or some other order in which the events make actual sense. (And if you figure out what that is, please tell me.)


scott g.f.bailey said...

These are all interesting, but what if your main interest is just reading a normal book? I think, frankly, that is what most people want to do. You've got all these non-writers (and non-readers, too) who are writing applications for the iPad or whatever, and the platforms are attempting to lead the way, leaving the actual art and the purpose of storytelling and experiencing stories behind. This stuff is more like playing an RPG, not like experiencing a well-told story. I remain very skeptical because I don't think that traditional storytelling has been sitting around, waiting for the right computer application to free it from its intellectual prison lo these tens of thousands of years. I think most of this year's brilliant new groundbreaking ideas will be forgotten this time next year, when they'll be replaced by very similar forgettable technological ideas that have nothing at all to do with storytelling and the experience of reading. I just don't think that people really want all of this stuff. It's all different from traditional books, but none of it is better.

C. N. Nevets said...

I half-agree with Mr. Bailey. I'm not sure all of these things necessarily will pass into the night. Some may be catch hold, particularly among those who do (as he says) play RPGs. But I don't think these alternative technologies have any more bearing on the future of books than the madlibs and choose-your-own-adventures did.

Tara Maya said...

TV has not replaced books, despite all dire predictions to the contrary. Video games have not replaced tv. These are simply new mediums of storytelling.

One possibility is that the enhanced book will be an entirely new medium, like games or televisions shows, for its own kind of story telling. Maybe people will say of the enhanced book, "I didn't like it as well as the book," as they do of film adaptations.

The other possibility is it will play out more like another genre, as Choose-Your-Story books are a genre of book.

One thing is certain, storytelliing will not go away. We are a storytelling species. Even if we become post-human as the Sigularists would have us believe, that is one thing I suspect would remain...

scott g.f.bailey said...

There were video games back in the 80s that did the courtroom thing. It's not new at all. I guess I look at all of this and I keep seeing the same ideas over and over again, and the programmers claim that this time, they've got the application down so that the concept will suddenly become Fun! But it's all the same old stuff over and over again, just tweaked for a new platform. It's hard to get excited by any of it, especially because none of it is being driven by the needs of storytellers or readers/viewers. It's all being driven by the technology, which is being driven by R&D dollars, which is being driven by corporate capitalism. Which is my main problem with all of these technological developments: at heart they're about making money, not about creating or experiencing fiction. Which is probably why so many of these ideas fail.

Tara Maya said...

I'm not so cynical about new technology. At one point the printing press was new technology. In fact, at one point, the frickin' alphabet was new technology. New technology does open up the possibilities of new media, not artificially, but naturally, as people play with the new tools available.

scott g.f.bailey said...

What do I know? I'm just sick of hearing about how the novel is dead, which none of your sources today is even claiming.

But now, of course, I'm distracted by thoughts of voting for Cthulhu.

Tara Maya said...

It's true that the hardware changes garner all of the attention, but there are other way books are changing that are more subtle. Your color-coded outline reminded me of this, Scott.

Ebook formats may make non-linear books easier to hop around, but the real change is that more writers are writing non-linear, chronologically challenging (not to be confused with chronologically challenged) books. Books with complex PoVs. Books that tease the reader in various other cognitively challenging ways.

I was thinking of this when I read your review of Tinkers. It is not just literary nor just genre books that are experimenting with things like this, it's across the board. This is an extremely interesting development which doesn't get a lot of comment in the media the way tech changes do.

scott g.f.bailey said...

On the one hand, I think a lot of literary experimentation does go unnoticed, but then who is really paying attention to that? Harding's book is experimental, and there is a little bit of formal experimentation in Franzen's latest, too. But on the other hand, almost all of these experiments have been done before, going back as far as the 15th century. Farther, if you read the cool chapter in the middle of The Iliad where Homer leaps forward in time, past his story by decades or longer, and talks about how the barricades the armies have built on the beach will crumble and someday be gone, but first hey let's return to our story so we know how we got there... There's never been any sort of linear progression in the art of fiction; experimentation is sort of one of the constants. But yeah, the technology gets all the press. It's easier to demonstrate and talk about, I think.

Tara Maya said...

I don't really think it has all been done before. I don't think Homer was experimenting with chronology, I think he wasn't devoted to having a story told in chronological order in the first place, he was just telling the story from an omniscient PoV.

We may have discussed this before, about Beowulf, but I think modern lit crit reads more complexity into older works than is actually justified. Not that these works weren't wonderfully innovative for the time, but if a modern literary critic were reading a genre fantasy about a hero who slays a monster, they wouldn't leap to assume deeper layers of meaning -- even though the modern fantasy author was much more likely to have been striving for layers than the authors of Beowulf.

I think the complexity modern readers bring to the Illiad or Beowulf is a mark of modern readers having hundreds if not thousands of other books to read those stories against. And that is also what modern writers have, and use, and rely on, when they write. The writers can assume their readers know a whole host of tropes and genres, and can play against the weight of these expectations.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I'm not sure if I agree, but this will take more thinking. I do like the way you've turned the issue around.

I also think it's dangerous to rule out the idea of Homer thinking "wouldn't it be cool if..."

But you know, I'm not a literary historian, so I don't really know. I doubt that writers of the past were just sort of innocently stumbling onto formal innovation while moderns are more informed and deliberate. How many readers or writers do you know who've had anything like a good classical education and have got anything like a deep awareness of the history of their own genre, even? I think people just experiment in order to tell stories, just like Homer did, and that we modern folk aren't any more sophisticated or innovative than our forebears were.

But again, maybe it's just because I haven't seen anything I consider innovative lately so I too readily discount the idea. I forget that the universe is mostly unknown to me, that there's a lot going on that I will never know about.

Tara Maya said...

Well, this issue is hugely debated in literary history, and the position I'm defending is not the popular one right now.

I don't think writers of the past were "innocently stumbling onto formal innovation while moderns are more informed and deliberate." I agree with you that most modern writers are ignorant of anything much older than thirty years (depending on their age).

But I think the trend toward greater innovation and complexity is real, even so. Because even the hack writer who has never read Homer, is still reading other writers who are indebted to Homer.

It's the, "If we see further it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants," idea. There are gobs of books on writing, characters, PoV, worldbuilding, description, everything, and where did all these tips and rules come from? From generation upon generation of previous genius. (Even if those geniuses did not actually follow those "rules.") Lowly hack writers inherit this bounty, and more informed writers can return deliberately to the sources.

Homer was no doubt brilliant and I have no doubt he put a great deal of thought into his work. But at the time the act to writing rather than speaking aloud an epic was pretty innovative in itself. He didn't have access to centuries of previous written literature, nor the literature of thousands of other authors, nor the literature of other cultures....

You say that you haven't read anything that innovative recently, but I am arguing that most of what you've read, if recent, probably IS innovative in the long view of things. Given the last ten thousand years of literature. Oh, wait. I guess there's only been five thousand years of literature.

Wow. That's kind of mindblowing, when I think about it. We've only been writing books for 5000 years. And only really been writing novels for 500 years.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I'm clearly in "don't know what I'm talking about" territory now! I'm not sure what you mean when you say that most of the recent stuff I read now is likely innovative. If I feel like I've seen it before, how is it innovative? Is it still innovation if it repeats past experimentation? Color me confused.

Tara Maya said...

Well, not innovative in the sense that 10,000 people haven't done it before, but "innovative" in the sense that 10,000 people hadn't done it before 1800.

*sheepish grin*

scott g.f.bailey said...

I think that possibly you're right in that nowadays we have been exposed to a wider variety of literatures (not just historical but cultural variety, as you pointed out earlier), and so we have simply got--as writers--a wider awareness of storytelling possibilities than our forebears may have had. So there's just more to choose from that we see as "normal" and so what was innovative in Voltaire is commonplace now, but now there are thousands of people doing it (as you say). Which would support your theory that the trend is toward greater complexity and formal/narrative experimentation. So huh.

I'm trying to figure out why I'm so firmly attracted to the idea that innovation has been a constant through the 5000 years you mention. Part of it is, I know, a reaction against people who make the ahistorical claim that there was a sudden change for the worse in fiction around 1950, shifting away from an alleged natural progression in the artform and moving from "naturalism" to "experimentalism." Or something. I have a headache and I think I'm sounding very cranky here while I'm just, you know, interested in the topic and opinionated.

Tara Maya said...

I think innovation has been constant, if you think of it in terms of the individual. That is, modern authors are no more innovative than ancient authors.

But when you consider that modern authors are (a) building on everything before them, and (b) much more numerous (more people on Earth + higher literacy rate = more writers than ever before in history) there is more overall accumulated innovation.

There may also be (c) more self-conscious innovation today. That is, perhaps Homer was aware of doing something new -- he would have had to have been, I think -- but today people are much more aware of living in a period of change. Today we expect the future to be different from the present because we know the present is different from the past.

I don't know if this translates directly to literature, though. Do people expect literature to be different? I mean, obviously the Book Singularity people do, but they also expect human brains to turn into robot gods.... I don't think most people have a sense of literature as being dynamic and in fact it bothers them.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I do think that the idea that the world of the future will be significantly different from the world of today is a pretty radical and new idea for the average person. The rate of change, technologically at any rate, keeps increasing. I might be tempted to say that the rate of change in the arts has remained constant, though I probably lack proper historical knowledge to make that claim.

Mostly, I don't want to be digitized data. Cthulhu would be pissed.

Tara Maya said...

I don't know -- I get the sense Cthulhu is a tentacles-on sort of elder god.

I guess I am making the argument that the arts are changing as much as tech is -- why assume only science and technology has all the fun?

Creative arts are becoming more diverse, more complex, more widespread and more accessible. I think one of the most interesting thing about the arts is that it can be both more complex and challenging (interesting only to small group of people) and yet also more accessible (interesting to a large group of people), though those are not necessarily the same works of art....

Ted Cross said...

Since I believe there is no such things as a soul, I do think there will come a time when we will be able to digitalize the contents of our minds. It will take a lot of breakthroughs, but humans are really good at being persistent. I have a novel on the burner right now that incorporates elements of this.

Tara Maya said...

Ted, I do believe that the information is what is important, not the medium.

But I also think that: (a) it's a lot harder than it seems, and therefore (b) will take a lot longer than another ten years and (c) the change is more likely to be gradual than one big burst (aka the "Singularity").

However, I welcome books that explore the possibilities.

Ted Cross said...

Ten years? Of course it will take longer than that! My story takes place in 2138.

Tara Maya said...

That seems more believable to me, Ted. But some of the real gung-ho Singularists believe-- or hope -- the end comes much sooner, because they want it to be in their lifetimes, in the belief it will offer them personal immortality.

C. N. Nevets said...

Because of course once they've become transfigured by the singularity experience they will still be themselves, just better and more immortal.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Until the operating system hangs and must be rebooted and all the Singularity folks discover that they're in RAM and oops...Sorry about that, folks.