networked book/book as network

Book as Network/Networked Book? That’s the koan I’ve been puzzling for the last few weeks. Can something made from, let’s say, hundreds of semi-anonymous contributors or commentors be considered a book? Is this what the texting generation is going to want–something a little less single-author, a little more…bloggy? The possibility makes me slightly sick and dizzy (I’m still paying student loans for a single-author oriented MFA in creative writing). At the same time it’s kind of exciting. Could, for example, my newest favorite blog Overheard in the Office a spin off of Overheard in New York be considered a dynamic anthology?
What about multi-player game-based narrative formats like Sims; are they the digital equivalent of networked novels? Bob recently sent me a link to an article entitled: Sims 2 hacks spread like viruses. Apparently, hackers have infected the Sims 2 universe, messing with individual games/narratives. About this Bob says: this seems so interesting to me if we consider it as one of the strands of future narrative where the author evolves into a god who creates a universe that people populate and mess with as people do; i.e. that the author creates a starting place for an unfolding story. Of course this has been a visible strand since the advent of computer games, especially the large multi-player ones — but for me the added bit here, that the mortals are messing with the game’s code and thus vastly increasing the scope of the game, brings the whole subject up with renewed interest.
The future book will be a networked book or a “processed book” as Joseph Esposito calls it. To process a book, he says, is more than simply building links to it; it also includes a modification of the act of creation, which tends to encourage the absorption of the book into a network of applications, including but not restricted to commentary.
A modification of the act of creation…what, exactly, does this mean for the craft of storytelling? Is it changing utterly? And is somebody going to tell the MFA programs?
btw. if you know any great examples of networked books let me know. I’m building a collection.

14 thoughts on “networked book/book as network

  1. Gary Frost

    Everything isn’t a book. The book is a very small thing. In fact, it is almost a trivial by-product of all its surrounding activities and infrastructure. Books are a known commodity easily handled across many social, economic and political thresholds. If so they are certainly not everything.
    Book arts frequently disrupt the modicum of the book…but not to much lasting effect. Layers of inter-sprouting turf or laminated baked goods or exercises in paper folding have been termed books. The only one that I know of that actually engendered a new book invention is Hedi Kyle’s flag book, now 35 years old.
    And why would networks, digital formats, data bases, gaming software and styles of communication want to be considered books? Why be that instead of being electronic reading devices, new reading behaviors, technologies of digital communications, or new artistic and literary conventions which promise their own, unbook, fulfillment?

  2. kim white

    True, everything isn’t a book. However, the electronic book does fit your definition of book. It is a “known commodity easily handled across many social, economic and political thresholds.” And, yes, electronic books are, like their paper counterparts, by-products of the surrounding culture, which is precisely why I’m predicting that network structures will spawn a type of book that incorporates these modes of thinking, imagining, understanding, and interacting.
    To say, “everything isn’t a book,” as a way of dismissing anything that doesn’t look and/or act like the paper object is too easy. To liken electronic books to experimental book arts, and to argue that since a book made out of laminated baked goods didn’t change the modicum of the book, then the electronic medium won’t, doesn’t really work. The book artist is concerned with the creation of highly personal fetish objects that very few people will “read,” while the writers of networked books are interested in engaging large numbers of people in order to create a collective narrative that incorporates a wide variety of experiences and opinions. If you accept that, like all human output, books have a reason for being, and if you agree that books are tools we use to better understand ourselves and our world, then the networked book offers a unique solution to understanding what it is like to live in the information age.
    Why would networks, digital formats, etc… want to be considered books? I’m not suggesting that the book wants to be anything. The book is something we create to suit our needs. It’s the reader and the writer who “want.” And I do believe that they want this kind of book. Why? Because it’s a global, networked world and, let’s face it, people entertain and educate themselves differently now. Why call them books and not “styles of communication, new reading behaviors, technologies of digital communications?” because they aren’t. I’m talking about a new kind of content, not a new approach to old content. You could almost call the networked book a new literary genre, except that it is not rising out of the literary world.

  3. Gary Frost

    I certainly agree with your comments. It probably is not worthwhile to hedge the definition (one way or another) in order to manage the emergence of book equivalents.
    Maybe we should discuss the future of the book from the perspective of authoring skills. But that becomes too fluid, I think, with creativity always exceeding the conventions of its presentational formats. There is also the issue that most of the paradigm shifts of narrative invention occurred in the past. (People feel that all paradigm shifts will occur during their lifetime, but that is not probable.)
    Or, we could discuss different futures themselves. I was surprised to learn that the Chinese expressions for “future of the book” and “book of the future” differ only in uniquely different characters with different meanings for the word “future”. I happen to like this dichotomy because “future of the book” (future of the traditional paper book) is what I am interested in and, I suspect, “book of the future” (emerging screen-based book equivalents) is what interests you. In this dichotomy the two books really are headed into different futures.
    I also think that it is significant to discuss general book performance. Can the book be ephemeral, transient, mutable? That would be OK (not to be committed to storage media or archival maintenance) but that also suggests an unbook. An unbook would be a conceptual work that disappears.

  4. dave munger

    I think the key definer of a book is the reader. If readers treat it like a book, it’s a book. One problem with defining books in a digital age is that “book” has always been separate from “genre.” Why do we think a dictionary is the same kind of a thing as a novel? Because in the print-world, on a not-so superficial level, they looked the same.
    We don’t tend to think of databases as “books” because we’ve never seen them printed and bound up to look like books. Actually, we have: dictionaries are always created from databases, but when the dictionary is printed, it becomes a “book,” and we forget about its origins.
    We associate “narrative text” with “book” so closely that I think any such work will always be considered a book, no matter what external form it takes. Perhaps the narrative text is the quintessential book.
    The question becomes more difficult when we consider other forms. Is a book? If it is, then what about iTunes? If is and iTunes isn’t, than what delimits the two? Probably only convention.
    Perhaps the “future of the book” will entail a narrowing of the definition of “book” to include only traditional printed texts, plus any form of narrative text. Supposing that does occur, then we still must also consider the future of digital media.

  5. Gary Frost

    I enthusiastically agree that the definition of the book should be based on behaviors and modes of reading. It works. For example, Kim pointed out that most book art is not because it is unreadable. Basing the definition on reading behaviors and modes also positions the discussion in authentic disciplines; ie the sociology and history of reading, the haptics of the codex mechanism, and the wide reach of the history and agendas of authorship and publishing. The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publication (SHARP) comprises many of the academics involved.
    So now we need to define the behaviors and modes of reading.
    In my review of literature, which generally discusses the scholarly study of orality and literacy, three parent modes of the verbal visual, the written mode and the print mode are considered. I add to this a fourth mode which is a composite of the three; a screen based on-line reading mode.
    I like your emphasis of the genres as subsets of the print mode. Yes! That is very helpful. And the clarification of genres has generally occurred following the advent of printing and the wide assembly of libraries. I also like to imagine habitats of reading combining two or more reading modes and a general time line, or “cascade” of the interactions and continuities of reading modes.
    Will the definition of the behaviors and modes of reading, as a by-product, indicate the future of the book? I bet it will.

  6. kim white

    This thread has got my stomach aflutter with excitement. I love these ideas! The idea of the dichotomy of printed book vs. electronic…marvelous coincidence that this concept manifested in our two sites: future of the and future of the You are right, I’m interested in “book of the future” (emerging screen-based book equivalents). I make electronic book-like-things, I work for an institute that is examining how the book is affected by electronic technologies. But I’m also very passionate about the traditional paper book. Two of the books I am currently working on will (I hope) be viewed as paper and text-based art objects (and also as books). I also write traditional narratives that will (someday I hope) be printed as a traditional paper book. So I am in two places at once and I think this is a good way to be. I’d like to think these two futures are entwined together in spite of their differences. Like a group of states the want to secede from the union but never do. The print book and the electronic book are united under a common purpose (or constitution, to extend the metaphor).
    I like the notion of giving the ephemeral book its own category, but not sure “unbook” is the right name because it suggests that the main quality of “book” is permanence. I prefer the idea you and Dave suggest, that the definition of the book should be based on behaviors and modes of reading. In which case, this type of book might correctly be called a networked book. A book which comes into existence because of the interactions of a group of writer/readers, and ceases to exist once that network disappears. I think that some of the more important networked books (important in terms of the ideas exchanged or in terms of the narrative or “entertainment” value of the book) will be preserved, but I think the disposability will be a crucial aspect. The sheer volume of these things will require it.
    “Habitats of reading” is a marvelous metaphor, one I could chew on for hours, days, weeks… It suggests that the thing we read creates a space for us to inhabit. Screen-based modes introduce a new environment that requires a new set of behaviors, a new culture for us to integrate. And, to bring it back to the subject of this thread, networking is crucial aspect of the digital environment. Anything significant that we create in that space will have to negotiate the landscape of interactivity.
    Very true, the future of the book may entail a narrowing of the definition of “book” to include only traditional printed texts, plus any form of narrative text, as Gary suggests, or it may become more elastic, expanding to include many things not presently considered books. It would be interesting to speculate on how those two possible directions might affect the book itself. Seceding from the union or not?

  7. dave munger

    I wonder if the real issue here is that there are in fact (at least) two separate “books”: a narrative text, and a bound volume. These are two separate things. When we talk about the “future of the book,” are we talking about telephone directories?
    I think one of the most important questions we must ask is how, in the digital world, will extended arguments be made? There is something satisfying about the bound volume, the sense of accomplishment and permanence it lends to a work.
    On the other hand, bound volumes have many limitations, and their very permanence may be one of them. But when we lose this permanence — if we have a “networked” book that can be changed by any of its members — then the question “have you read book x?” becomes a different one than it was in the print world.
    This is not to say that a networked book cannot convey the same authority and permanence as a traditional book: see Wikipedia. But what it means to “have read” or “have written” such a work is immensely different.
    Speaking of networked books, the group of bloggers/commenters here could probably make a pretty nifty one, don’t you think?

  8. Word Munger

    Is a networked book still a book?

    Yesterday I discussed Umberto Eco’s lecture on the future of books from the perspective of whether e-books can replace traditional books. I think Eco rightfullly distinguishes between “books to read” and “books to consult,” with electronic books t…

  9. kim white

    Bound volume vs. content of (bound or digitized) volume: I agree, they are separate issues. In this thread, I think we are talking primarily about content. And also there is this interesting idea about physical form arising out of reading modes and user preferences, which I hope we will continue to explore.
    Have you read book x, becomes “are your reading book x,” I love that, it suggests a new way of thinking. Knowledge and imagination are not fixed and final, but fluid, existing in real time. However, it does erase that sense of accomplishment (for the reader and the writer) that comes from finishing something. On the other hand, being part of an emerging collaborative work and experiencing a connection with an audience during the creative process is also very satisfying. Another problem with networked books: if we change the single author model, how will we decide who the authority is?
    Speaking of networked books, the group of bloggers/commenters here could probably make a pretty nifty one, don’t you think?
    Most definitely

  10. Gary Frost

    “and there is also this interesting idea of physical form arising out of reading modes…”
    We have decided to look away from the format and observe the reader and acknowledge wide skills of reading. Looking at reading behavior presents an opportunity to discover new aesthetics of writing.
    Writing is reading because writing is reading your own mind. This is why the written mode is a classic way of reading and one reason why it is differentiated from reading in print. This explains why writers methodically read and reread what they have written, literally confirming what they have already imagined, yet the same writer does not need to read her own book.
    A printed book is ready to be shelved among other books and derive its meaning among them. The written manuscript book, however, can only be read as a unique recording from the mind of the writer. And what the writer says about the manuscript is something different, again confirming the other classic verbal/visual mode of reading.
    On-line the writer can say or show something, write something and print something simultaneously. It is a composite reading mode enabled by a delivery technology. Writers find this alluring and so do readers. The composite on-line mode has an alluring transience as it positions and repositions itself among the parent reading modes.

  11. Joseph J. Esposito

    I was naturally pleased to see the reference to “The Processed Book,” an essay I wrote a couple years ago. We have subsequently created a demo project with the help of the Hewlett Foundation. It can be found at The “pbos” extension stands for “processed book operating system.” One of the comments in the thread was that the bloggers and commentators on this site could create a networked book. I agree. Tools to do this are at the site above. You can work with any book or text that you choose, but I certainly would be delighed if the commentary sprung up around the PB essay.
    Joe Esposito

  12. if:book

    defining the networked book: a few thoughts and a list

    The networked book, as an idea and as a term, has gained currency of late. A few weeks ago, Farrar Straus and Giroux launched Pulse , an adventurous marketing experiment in which they are syndicating the complete text of a…

  13. Lehner Commish

    Ever since the original Kindle came out, I questioned why I would need one of these. I wasn’t a big reader (now I understand why) and I just couldn’t figure out how this could help me. When the price dropped on the Kindle, I decided to check it out. From the moment I took it off the charger, I was hooked. I started reading a book, and just as everyone has said – the reader disappeared in my hand as if I were reading a bound paper book. However, my hand never cramped from holding it, I didn’t have to keep readjusting my position as I flipped pages, and I didn’t have to keep manipulating a book light if I read in a dark room. The Kindle has brought me back into the world of reading and I’m really glad I’ve taken the plunge. The screen is clear and “pages” refresh quickly – there isn’t much more I can say than others already have – the Kindle is, in short, amazing.


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