Brave New Books: the Novel and the Twenty-First Century

It’s weird to call yourself a novelist (of some sort) in the digital world—writing in silence during those gasps of free time, hiding pages in back closets, only admitting you’d spend time on such a thing after someone asks you for the fifth time no, what would you really like to do? Novel: what does that word even mean anymore? Maybe it truly is a timeless medium that will escape one technological revolution after another—it survived Bradbury’s post-TV apocalypse didn’t it? Or maybe the novel is already gone and we’re all just nostalgic for the 90’s.

In all likelihood, the reality lies somewhere down the middle, with the novel, both as a form and a means of expression, evolving and merging with the digital form it encounters. These three examples provide different possibilities for the evolution of the novel in the twenty-first century. It’s certainly a brave new world.

Around the World in Eighty Typos

In “Codex In Crisis,” Anthony Grafton charts the challenges and promises to the library and its digital counterpart in the twenty-first century. Instead of the internet seeing the formation of a ‘Universal Library,’ Grafton finds that the shift belies really just “one more in a series of new information ecologies” (Grafton 559). His point resonates with the argument of Adrian Johns on the emergence of print culture, who in his work The Nature of the Book argues against the idea (propagated by critics like Eisenstein) of a monumental shift in cultural and scientific practices with the invention of movable type. Rather, print culture, he argues, emerged slowly over the three-hundred years between the reformation and the industrial revolution: “the very identity of print itself had to be made” (Johns 269). Digital books are going through a similar process: rather than suddenly being plopped into the word sui generis, they’re in the process of growing and taking shape as I write this. Grafton charts these growing pains (“at least one scholarly acquaintance has spotted a body part, scanned with the text”), none of which are ultimately more restrictive than copyright laws, which often prevent the reader from reading more than just a portion of the text (563). His paper succinctly demonstrates that internet libraries in no way represent an unbridgeable gap from the past, and that the transition comes with its own shortcomings.

A perusal of Google Books certainly demonstrates this. The first thing you notice about the Google Books edition of Around the World in Eighty Days is the clutter—pop ups, side bars, and search toggles encompass the book, leaving probably only around 65% of the space on the web page for the actual book. Of course, this can be adjusted (to the point of making the book full screen), but that immediate calming sensation which comes with the opening of a book is lost: now, it’s more about the fight for control, and it takes cognitive willpower to actually focus on the book itself. Furthermore, Google books (along with PDF, Adobe Reader, and other electronic reading functions) suffer from almost too much adaptability—full screen, minimized, reader-view, zoom-in-zoom-out—so that I’m constantly switching the formats. It’s as if it’s begging me to over-customize, but since when was a book ever about customization? It detracts from its basic message to the point of (perhaps) forgetting what the message was about at all.

It's like, by this point, where even IS the book?
It’s like, by this point, where even IS the book?

The other significant thing about Google Books is its default setting to let pages unravel vertically. Without the omnipresence of the page break, this would almost hearken back to the Medieval scroll method; rather, with the page breaks there is little about the experience that feels organic. Like the settings, it takes conscious effort for me to move down towards the next page; for whatever reason, the scroll seems to take more effort (that push down the pad) than it does to turn the leaf of a book. These books, so rigorously transcribed, were originally designed to be, as Andrew Piper puts it, “mirrors,” where action would unfold on both sides of the page (Piper 517). For Eighty Days, this becomes quite glaring: on the first page, there is a drawing of the ship “Saint Michael,” while the second page states that “the drawing on the opposite page represents the ‘Saint Michael’” (Verne x-xi). But there is no opposite page anymore; like the phantom limb, the book calls out to something that’s no longer really there.

The phantom ship; I want my money back
The phantom ship; I want my money back

In the end, the Achilles Heel of Google’s Eighty Days lies in its fragmented nature: I can only peer so far before copyright cuts out half the book. It reinforces Grafton’s conclusion that “the hypermodern search engine resembles nothing more than a teeming mass of old-fashioned footnotes” (Grafton 560). When only half of a work is available online, it’s not a novel anymore—it’s a reference of a novel. Of course, such a system of cross-references doesn’t seem all that out of place in the age of hyperreading, which Katherine Hayles sees as essential to the digital experience, this need for “filtering.. skimming, hyperlinking, and fragmenting” (Hayles 496). As she so presciently points out, the oversaturated amount of information we’re required to read leads to an enormous “desire to skim everything because there is way too much material to pay attention to anything for very long” (Hayles 497). With this in mind, perhaps the problem lies less in the digital format itself but in the requirement of the information age to consume works at a incredible pace. In such a world, a quick skim through Google Books might satisfy those requirements. But by this point, could that still be called reading at all?

The “Infinite” Possibility of the Text in Remediation

One medium which declares its infinite readability and its inherent connection to physical books is, unsurprisingly, in the realm of e-books. Kindle, Kobo and I Books have been enormously successful at masquerading as real books which have been just transcribed into a digital format. In many ways they’re not lying, but what’s lost in such a transition?

Somehow, that faux-90's flash screen is just not the same
Somehow, that faux-90’s flash screen is just not the same

The e-book version David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest provides tremendous promise and set backs to my reading experience. In many ways, the novel is extremophile’s idea of a ‘good read,’ and yet it’s precisely those very extremes which showcase the great promises and great shortcomings of the e-reading adventure. It’s fair to say that the first response readers have to Infinite Jest is a statement along the lines of “Holy —- this is a big book!” At 1200 pages, Wallace’s Opus defies the notion of reading-as-leisure, and for physical connoisseurs the work would immediately impress upon them that it is the reading equivalent of running a marathon. For me, all of my transactions were done online: while I’d heard that the book was big, I encountered the text through digital spheres like Goodreads and Time Magazine’s website, whose assurances of the magnificence of the book encouraged me to get it without seeing it.

Turning on and turning in for the first time, all I had were the words in front of me, and what hit me first wasn’t any sort of grandeur, but rather Wallace’s humility and that quirky, understated prose, that wicked humor. With just a completion percentage at the bottom (which, of course, is the same whether it’s Lord of the Flies or War and Peace), I had no idea that I was stepping into any kind of epic or masterpiece: for that first chapter, it’s just a boy and his dream to play tennis. I’m not going to go as far and say that my encounter with Wallace was a moment of ‘Pure Reading’ (free from the trappings and expectations of the cover and size), but I will say that there’s something incredibly streamlined and effervescent about the act of reading on an e-book. After all the pretensions of the publisher have been stripped away, it’s just you and the author’s words.

Then again, ‘pure’ and ‘simple’ doesn’t sound so great when you’re wandering through the desert of forty, fifty, sixty percent completion: those are the moments when the book drags on forever, when a percent is the equivalent of about a hundred clicks on the Kindle. Wallace’s work of hyper-realism becomes difficult to complete regardless of the media in which one encounters it in, but it becomes extra-harrowing when it seems, after an hour of reading, that you haven’t completed a single percent (versus a book, where a page is still a page, even if that page is swallowed up by the other thousand of them). That’s rough.

More disconcertingly, however, is the encountering novel’s brilliant non-ending—which, reflecting a video cassette, loops back with the first chapter—on a Kindle. When we read a book, we can anticipate when that book will end (or, more specifically, the specific point at which that book chooses to conclude). We have the specific measurement of pages. With an e-book, this ending is at best a guess, and so it was with Wallace’s. Ensued within the rising action (“yes, it’s all finally getting going, he’s finally getting me somewhere!), the book’s abrupt ending on the e-book (a sudden jump to a blank page—the Kindle isn’t even kind enough to tell me I’ve reached the end) felt like a slap in the face. It took me two days of thought and another day of rereading before I began to appreciate what Wallace had done. Many readers, I suspect, would not have the same patience.

Most importantly, beyond all its promise and limitations, the remediation of Infinite Jest comes to change the meaning and the format of the work itself. Infinite Jest, published in 1997, plays with what it means to read a traditional novel through the use of footnotes: with over four hundred (some of which span as much as thirty pages), the footnotes often will take over the story itself. The physical reader has the opportunity to flip to the back at any time (including saving the footnotes for after finishing the novel). The Kindle User, meanwhile, is forced to select the footnotes the moment they appear on the screen, or else risk losing that footnote to the endless desert of click-backs. Once that footnote is finished, you cannot jump to the next footnote, as there’s only a link back to the novel. Those who have read the novel will understand why this is so crucial. In many ways, it reflects Wallace’s infinitely immersive, infinitely distractive writing style—jumping from one end to the next without a seeming plan, lost within thoughts—while at the same time reflecting his concerns about the oversaturation of the information age. With hyperlinks embedded in the text, the reader is forced to consciously consider the distraction of the internet while they themselves become distracted by the footnotes. It’s a perfect, if exasperating, moment of remediation.

In considering what digitization does to reading in his essay “Turning the Page,” Andrew Piper begins by considering what pages have done to reading in the first place. Many of these characteristics are still very much at play in the Kindle, including ideas that “pages are windows” and invite the reader in; pages are frames which “reduce the world to something comprehensible”; and pages are still individuated by the breaking of their sections (Piper 515). However, a Kindle can, as mentioned before, no longer be a mirrors and, more importantly, can no longer be a fold. “The essence of the page is the turn,” he declares, and in reading is experienced “as a gradual unfolding” (Piper 517). If it’s the physical turn of the page which creates the unity—that skip between the action, that uncertain limbo like the rest bar in jazz—then something is invariably and inevitably lost in the transition to the electronic. It’s true: clicking a button for a flash of a screen does not instill the same Pavlovian pleasure which the turn of the page creates, and in a novel with as many pages as Infinite Jest, that’s a lot of missed endorphins. Something essential has been lost, and perhaps that’s why there’s always a hollowness to e-books which I’ve never gotten over, where the act of reading becomes just blowing air into a jar which eventually evaporates, and it all drifts away. It’s all intangible: it’s “fake, a simulation called up from distributed data” (Piper 519).

Piper’s account leads me to wonder why e-books need to masquerade as normal books in the first place. As he suggests, for reading to integrate with the digital world, basic modes of transcription just won’t cut it. Why do digital books even try when something about reading has been, in essence, lost in the transition?

Hyperreading, Hyperfun

Inkle

Perhaps the real purpose of the electronic novel is to completely and honestly renounce the pretentions of the physical page. 80 Days is a 2014 IOS game created by Inkle, a Cambridge-based development team who launched an interactive tool (Inklewriter) which lets users create their own electronic Choose-Your –Own-Adventures. It takes the idea of crowd-writing to new heights. 80 Days, the only game actually produced by them, comes to highlight the tremendous potential of software. The game is an interactive re-envisioning of Jules Verne’s novel, where the players, controlling the Butler Passepartout, are given the chance to choose their own route around the world. While the player often has the option to follow the original route of the book (and those portions play out much as they originally do), with three hundred cities to explore, the possibilities are limitless: players can decide who to see, what to do and buy, where to sell it, and how their relationship with Fogg will grow and develop over the journey.

All 'dat dialogue
All ‘dat dialogue: down at the bottom are the player’s choices

80 Days exists in a hybrid of mediums: while its interactivity might label it a ‘video game,’ it more closely resembles a book, as almost all of the action takes place in a textual format. As such, the act of reading (unlike other Choose-Your-Own-Adventure games like Mass Effect or Telltale’s The Walking Dead) is the main action required of the participant. In many ways, it acts as a possible prototype for what Hayles sees as the need to synergize Close (in depth) and Hyper (fast-paced, fluid) readings of texts. Going much farther than Literature+ (whose experiment with Romeo and Juliet on Facebook is something closer to satire, and thus has limited capacity to actually engage with texts), 80 Days is truly capable of “strengthening the ability to understand complex literature,” while at the same time forcing its players to “think reflectively on digital capabilities” (Hayles 505). It reflects the shift “for already-existing print literacies [to be] enlisted to promote and extend digital literacy” (Hayles 507). It’s interesting to note that Frankenstein, the text she draws from for examples in her own classroom, is the other most notable IOS adaptation of a novel. Apparently the votaries, in fighting for methods of digital literacy, feel the need to legitimize the act of digital reading by demonstrating how ‘classics’ from the nineteenth century can be adequately adapted and even enhanced by the new digitalization.

In allowing for freedom of travel, 80 Day’s developers have expanded Verne’s world to encompass the entire steam-punk fin-de-siècle society in which it exists. By adding worlds like the automaton-heavy Zulu Empire or the crumbling edifice of Athens, 80 Days opens up new avenues of exploration, not just of imaginative but also of thematic concerns, including the problematization of the era’s need for science and its hints at the danger of the colonial, progressive attitudes.[1] I believe that it’s exactly a work like this which Piper thinks of when he argues that books need to be ‘opened up’ in their digital form. In this digital world, “reading becomes nomadic rather than domestic,” so that the player is allowed to zoom, chart, expand or limit in whatever way makes the most sense (Piper 519). Most importantly though, the reading experience becomes “defined by its ephemerality” so that, with all of the new possibilities, “you never step in the same [world] twice” (Piper 521). In 80 Days, reading becomes a dynamic experience.

And perhaps a relentless dynamism is exactly what the reading experience of the Twenty-First Century calls for. 80 Days proves that embracing the digital form—and specifically the digital form as itself, not as a masquerades of print—in no way limits the creativity, intelligence, or depth of that work. It merely takes on a different form, and while that form might seems scary, so would’ve Robinson Crusoe or Ulysses. Whatever happens to the physical book, it’s clear to me that its digital remediation will look, in its own way, completely different. And in my mind that’s what it really means to be open to the possibilities of our brave new world.

A whole world of possibilites
A whole world of possibilites

[1] A particularly excellent side story features the opportunity for Passeportout to travel into New Orlean’s gay underbelly, exploring what it means for same sex romance in the age of moral temperance. Such a moment simultaneously defeats and enhances Verne’s original world, offering insight into sub-cultures that certainly existed in the late nineteenth century, but would never have been allowed to be published.

Works Cited:

Grafton, Anthony. “Codex in Crisis: The Book Dematerializes.” The Broadview Reader in Book History. Ed. Michelle Levy and Tom Mole. Toronto: Access Copyright, 2015. 555-573. Print

Hayles, Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” The Broadview Reader in Book History. Ed. Michelle Levy and Tom Mole. Toronto: Access Copyright, 2015. 491-510. Print

Piper, Andrew. “Turning the Page (Roming, Zooming, Streaming).” The Broadview Reader in Book History. Ed. Michelle Levy and Tom Mole. Toronto: Access Copyright, 2015. 511-524. Print

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