Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Golden Notebook Project – Readers Announced

Beginning November 10th, seven women will begin a public conversation in the margins of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. The text of the novel and the readers’ conversation will be in a nifty new format designed by Apt Studios in London, similar to, but much more elegant than CommentPress. We’ll put up a preview sometime in October. In the meantime here is a brief bio of the seven readers:

Naomi Alderman.png Naomi Alderman grew up in London and attended Oxford University and UEA. Her first novel, Disobedience, was published in nine languages; it was read on BBC radio’s Book at Bedtime and won the Orange Award for New Writers. In 2007, she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and one of Waterstones’ 25 Writers for the Future. From 2004 to 2007 Naomi was lead writer on the award-winning alternate reality game Perplex City and in 2008 she wrote the Alice in Storyland game for Penguin’s online We Tell Stories project.

Nona Willis Aronowitz.pngNona Willis Aronowitz is a freelance writer originally from New York City. She is a political and cultural critic who writes about sex, women, youth culture, and music for numerous publications including The Nation, The New York Observer, The Village Voice, VenusZine, and She currently co-writes a blog called GIRLdrive, the content of which will be in an upcoming book of the same name. GIRLdrive is based on a road trip taken across the United States in order to find out what young women think and feel about feminism, and will be published by Seal Press in Fall 2009. She lives in Chicago.

laura kipnis Laura Kipnis is a cultural critic and theorist whose most recent books are Against Love: A Polemic and The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability (both from Pantheon); her essays have appeared in Slate, Harper’s, Playboy, the Nation, and The New York Times Magazine. Her work has been translated into thirteen languages; she’s received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Yaddo; and she teaches in the Radio-TV-Film Department at Northwestern University (she is a former video artist). Her next book is called How To Become a Scandal.

philippa levine.pngPhilippa Levine grew up in an upwardly-mobile, left-wing, working-class family in London. She received her doctorate in history during the Thatcher era when academic jobs were thin on the ground so after a brief stint teaching at the University of East Anglia, she took a post-doctoral fellowship in women’s studies in Australia where she combined academic work with radio broadcasting. In 1987 she moved to the US where she has lived since. Her publications include The British Empire, Sunrise to Sunset (2007), Gender and Empire: Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series (2004) Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (2003). Her current projects include a study of colonial nakedness, and of evolution, eugenics and empire.

Lenelle Moise.png Lenelle Moïse is an award-winning “culturally hyphenated pomosexual poet,” playwright and performance artist. She writes jazz-infused, politically-charged performance texts about Haitian-American culture and the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality. Moïse blogs regularly for Showtime’s At 20, she co-wrote the screenplay for a Rodrigo Bellot film, Sexual Dependency, which has been screened at dozens of international festivals. Moïse received an MFA in Playwriting from Smith College. Moïse regularly performs her autobiographical one-woman show Womb-Words Thirsting at colleges across the United States and her newest musical Expatriate was produced Off-Broadway at the Culture Project in July 2008 and met with critical acclaim.

Helen Olajumoke Oyeyemi .png Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 and raised in London. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl, is about a young girl and her imaginary friend. Her second novel, The Opposite House, is a nominee for the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her third novel, White is for Witching, will be published in 2009.

Harriet Rubin.png Harriet Rubin is best known as the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, a little bullet of a book on power that is now in its twelfth paperback printing. The book has been published in 27 languages and has been a bestseller in several of them. Rubin currently writes for The NY Times and other publications. She was the founder and publisher of Currency Books/Doubleday, which changed the science and soul of economic thinking. In late Fall 2008, she is launching an on-line publishing program devoted to business, power and leadership.

Putting the “book” back in Facebook

With October just around the corner, American universities and high schools are gearing up for homecoming celebrations, those unabashed nostalgia fests. There’s just one problem: the yearbook, one of nostalgia’s favorite vessels, is obsolete.
This summer, the Economist reported on the slumping sales of college yearbooks, rightly citing the ascendancy of social networking sites as a major factor in the decline. The article, otherwise well-reported, is sullied by some editorializing in its final paragraph:

Although today’s students find yearbooks old-fashioned, they may one day miss their vanished youth. Long after Facebook and MySpace have become obsolete and the electrons dispersed to the ether, future alumni might just wish for the permanence of ink on paper.

Callers on an NPR Digital Culture segment had similar misgivings, as did those interviewed by the Toledo Blade. Though I’m by no means a Facebook apologist, their argument strikes me as specious. It conflates intangibility and impermanence; because we can’t hold the website in our hands, it says, those electronically-stored memories are liable to disappear on us overnight. While I’d never bet that Facebook and its ilk will be around forever, I believe its information can and will persist at one venue or another — there’s little to suggest that digitized content is somehow more ephemeral than its print counterpart. In fact, at present, more users are concerned about their ability to destroy that information than to preserve it. If anything, Facebook might be too permanent. So much for that pesky electron ether-dispersion…
Despite the presence of “book” in its title, few critics to my knowledge have construed Facebook as the ultimate electronic yearbook. They focus instead on its broader “social network” applications. That’s all well and good, but what is Facebook if not the quintessential model of an electronic book done right?
Like its conventional print brethren, Facebook chronicles the lives of a certain network’s members. It’s teeming with photos and groups; its wall posts are the digital equivalent of those slangy well-wishes from your friends and acquaintances (and maybe a stranger or two).
Since users provide the data, it’s matchlessly comprehensive — and most of this data, if not all of it, is driven by nostalgia and memory-making, the desire to memorialize your glory days. Certainly it’s no coincidence that, when it launched, Facebook catered exclusively to college students, with high-schoolers hot on their heels. This demographic overlaps perfectly with “the yearbook years.”
One of the yearbook’s biggest drawbacks has always been its linearity: how many people do you know who read them from start to finish? Facebook’s search bar bypasses that structural issue, providing a degree of accessibility that strikes fear in the hearts of yearbook indices everywhere. Facebook’s contents are individually tailored, fully customizable, and unconstrained by timeframes.
It’s also totally free.
The site, then, is a better yearbook than any yearbook can be. It suggests that the networked screen is, at least for this purpose, an infinitely more versatile medium than the static page. In considering Facebook as an electronic book rather than as a mere web franchise, we see how this new medium can improve upon the tried-and-true formulas of the print age.
To be sure, I’m not championing the sort of navel-gazing, quasi-addictive Facebook usage that consumes some of my generation. (Full disclosure: I’m 22.) Nor am I claiming that social networking sites are the only cause of waning interest in yearbooks as an institution. I’m just saying that the turning point has come and gone. Consider that a Bethesda, Md. high school recently republished Facebook photos in its yearbook; consider that DePauw University’s 2008 yearbook modeled itself after Facebook to woo buyers. If this isn’t the simulacrum replacing the original, I don’t know what is.
There’s arguably another, bleaker lesson to be learned here, which is that Facebook’s true victory over print is predicated on its ability to massage our narcissism. Perhaps MicCalifornia, a commenter on the Economist piece, says it best: “The first thing we do when we get our yearbooks is see how many pictures we are in. Who needs it when with Facebook, I am in all the pictures.”

looking for lit in all the wrong places

Just came upon a Guardian piece looking at the underwhelming quality of ‘e-lit’. In my comment on the discussion I found myself reviewing a number of themes that have recurred in my if:book research over the last couple of years: the emergence of net-native storytelling, the failure of the literary establishment to detach sufficiently from aesthetic criteria overdetermined by the print form to be able to grasp the potential of the Web, and the increasing power of brand-funded patronage in digital cultural production.
So, with apologies for cross-posting, I’ve added my comment on the article (well worth reading, by the way, as is the ensuing debate) here for discussion.
In January of last year I posted on if:book an essay which argued that alternate reality games (ARGs) were the first genuinely net-native form of storytelling. This, I suggested, is because ARGs make good use of intrinsic qualities of the Web (boundlessness, fluidity, participation and so on) rather than attempting to reproduce a book-like entity within something that’s pushing in another direction.
While I’ve seen ARGs take off in many forms since then I have seen little discussion of the form within ‘literary’ circles, whether digital or otherwise, the only exception being Naomi Alderman, who is both a prizewinning novelist and a writer at London ARG studio SixToStart.
I’ve argued elsewhere on if:book that this – and other disconnects and category errors around the relationship between literature and the Web – is because the received understanding of ‘literature’ and ‘literary’ is at odds with the way the vast majority of Web users approach digital media. But even as the balance of cultural power tips ever more steeply in favour of the Web, these received ideas about what ‘literature’ is stubbornly refuse to budge.
The Web operates increasingly on an assumption that in most cases content will only be read if it is free, a fact usefully illustrated by comparing the Guardian’s declining print readership with its growing online presence and intelligent cross-marketing partnerships there (dating, a deal with LoveFilm etc). But this demand for free content removes at a stroke the writer’s and publisher’s business model, forcing a rethink of the ways we bankroll cultural production (see here and here for more on this).
But this hasn’t been taken on board by the proponents of ‘e-literature’. Much ‘e-lit’ discussion takes place within academia and grant-funded bodies, which allows a misleading focus on ‘artistic’ value in digital cultural production without taking into account the need most professional creators of fiction have to produce something that sells. This perception gap is frustratingly evident in the lack of a commercial angle in the roster of sources quoted in the article above. But meanwhile, a hugely dynamic new industry is emerging that uses participation, co-creation, multimedia and more to involve large audiences in digitally-delivered narratives. The hitch is that these narratives are inevitably brand-funded – for example Where Are The Joneses?, a semi-crowdsourced sitcom funded by Ford but genuinely entertaining in its own right; most ARGs; and a slew of other projects I know of in production.
While time will tell whether output such as WATJ has enduring value and real impact, the point here is that the discourse of ‘e-lit’ is too heavily embedded in a set of assumptions and aesthetic criteria that evolved for print literature to see what’s right in front of its nose: that ‘e-lit’ exists, but doesn’t look anything like ‘lit’. And, furthermore, that it has abandoned literature’s ostensible decoupling of artistic creation and commercial intent and become a vehicle for corporate engagement with the audiences. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps no more so than the great artistic patrons of the Middle Ages. Will it eclipse the minority pursuit of print-style creations with multimedia bolt-ons in online cultural impact? It has already done so.

this is a world of imagination & digitisation

On Thursday October 9th, National Poetry Day in the UK, 2008 if:book london is launching an exciting experiment in reading and writing, supported by Arts Council England. Over the next six months I will be working with artist and web designer Toni Lebusque, project manager and film maker Sasha Hoare and a team of inspired people to create an illuminated book online, containing the poetry of William Blake, new writing, art and song inspired by Blake’s work, and the voices of many readers as they debate some of Blake’s key concerns and their relevance in the digital age.
Why Blake? Well, just imagine what William Blake’s blog would look like. Think what this radical, visionary maker and publisher of multimedia books would have made of the web.
I came across Songs of Innocence & Experience as a teenager, before teachers could convince me he was difficult. My great grandfather was a Blake scholar, and I found reproductions of the illuminated books on my grandmother’s shelves; they soon inspired me to churn out epic poems of mythical worlds, to write them out neat in an exercise book and embellish them with crayons and felt tip pens. ‘This is a world of Imagination & Vision’ he wrote, which I took to mean, ‘Go for it!’
Blake has been an inspiration to generations of real artists too, from Allen Ginsberg to Jah Wobble, a source of Imagination and Vision to all kinds of readers, yet he’s also been colonized by the academics, judged obscure on one hand, nuts on the other.
Blake railed against the treatment of Chimney Sweepers and working Londoners locked in the mind forg’d manacles of man; he conjured up vivid images of nature enhanced by symbolism and transformed by imagination; he celebrated the importance of freedom in play for children. How would he react to London now, to the digital printshop, the sweatshop and call centre, the lack of spaces for kids to roam except online? What would Blake build in Second Life’s green and pleasant land? And what digital tools might he use to make what kind of books?
Bob Stein has talked of a new kind of curatorial role involved in the publishing of tomorrow; in his Unified Theory of Publishing he writes:

“far from becoming obsolete, publishers and editors in the networked era have a crucial role to play. The editor of the future is increasingly a producer, a role that includes signing up projects and overseeing all elements of production and distribution, and that of course includes building and nurturing communities of various demographics, size, and shape. Successful publishers will build brands around curatorial and community building know-how AND be really good at designing and developing the robust technical infrastructures that underlie a complex range of user experiences.”

I agree completely, but I’m not convinced that traditional publishing companies are best placed to take on this role. I’ve spent many years working with literature organisations like the Poetry Society and Booktrust, alongside professional workers with reader development projects in libraries and the community; our trade is the creation and execution of projects which bring writers and readers together, commissioning new work for specific settings. A good arts festival sparks conversations around the themes it explores and the events it makes happen.
The Poetry Places scheme we ran at the Poetry Society in the 1990s involved residencies, workshops, performances in all kinds of venues, and the creation of poems to be engraved into a public space, proclaimed at an event, used as signage in parks, zoos and estates…
People usually classified as ‘arts administrators’ are orchestrating interactions that are much more akin to Bob’s concept of the curator of the networked book than publishers who seem to find it hard to see much beyond a downloadable replica of their traditional product.
Songs of Imagination & Digitisation will involve working with a range of those people, commissioning new writing and art, providing incentives for new voices to submit work and for readers to give us their ideas. We will mingle film, text and image, reader response and author interviews – and once we’ve gathered enough ingredients on our blog we hope to transmute them into something that feels like a proper, substantial, networked book.
So many web projects go encyclopaedic and neverending. The book of the future will be linked to a community, open to revision and extension, but also bounded in a meaningful way, a satisfying artistic entity, porous but not pointless.
if:book kicks off this project on National Poetry Day. In the morning some of us will wander round Covent Garden and Soho, where Blake was born, and talk to people about their working lives. We’ll film them reading lines from Blake, then go and drink tea while actor Toby Jones reads us Blake poems and we respond to them in doodles, written words and conversation.
And that day the inspirational Bill Thompson will release into the wild a laptop loaded up with Blake’s work. For the next five months it will be passed from person to person, each one recording their responses, and emailing them to the blog
Over the next six month’s we’ll take a psychogeographical walk to Blake’s house in South Molton Street to discuss the city, gather at the Museum of Gardening near Hercules Buildings in Lambeth where Mr & Mrs Blake naked played Adam and Eve – allegedly. We’ll go to the Sassoon Gallery near Peckham Rye where young William saw angels in the branches of trees, and discuss the innocence and experiences of childhood then and now. We will be commissioning some writers, artists and musicians, offering eReaders and iTouches to others who contribute. We hope to build an international community of readers around our blog of the project’s progress,, including students at all levels who have Blake as a set text. We want the Songs to be a springboard into all kinds of reading.
So – Tell us what you think of this Idea; Bookmark, RSS and us; Send us your Blake related Poems, Stories, Photographs and Drawings; Together Let Us Sing Songs of Imagination & Digitisation!

Sarah Palin, Crowdsourced

Views of Wikipedia are decidedly mixed in academia, though perhaps trending slowly from mostly negative to grudgingly positive. But regardless of your view of Wikipedia – ?or your political persuasion – ?you can’t help but be impressed with the activity that occurs on the site for current events. (The same holds only slightly less true for non-current events, as Roy Rosenzweig pointed out.)

It’s instructive, for instance, to follow at this moment the collaborative production on the open encyclopedia for the entry on Sarah Palin, John McCain’s pick for Vice President. My best guess is that there are currently around 1,000 edits being made each day, by several hundred people. I actually started tracking this before Palin revealed the pregnancy of her teenage daughter, so the frenzy has probably increased, but here’s the schematic I came up with for the progress of the “Sarah Palin” Wikipedia article.

The graphic below shows every edit from 8am EDT on Sunday, August 31, 2008, to 8am EDT on Monday, September 1, 2008. These 24 hours (on a holiday weekend in the U.S.) produced over 500 edits, many of them quite large. The blocks show individual edits, ranging from a single word to three paragraphs. At the same time these edits were being made, scores of Wikipedians were also debating 80 distinct points for inclusion (or exclusion) from the article. They also added over a hundred footnotes pointing to print, Web, and other non-Wikipedia sources (seen at the end of the graphic, right after the “finished” article).

This entry was originally posted on Dan Cohen’s website, and he has kindly agreed to let us share it.

Synthesizing art, literature, and Halloween costumes

Natura Morta, Giorgio Morandi, 1956 (via The Met)

There is little or nothing new in the world. What matters is the new and different position in which an artist finds himself seeing and considering the things of so-called nature and the works that have preceded and interested him.
-Giorgio Morandi, written in 1926, published in 1964

Morandi exhibits have popped up all over the city: in the Met, Lucas Shoorman’s, and Sperone Westwater (thanks, Dan). I attended the Morandi exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this weekend. While the Met presented him on paper as a quiet and introverted artist (they even had a quotation about how he was a testament to what you can find when you look inside yourself), the most striking quality of this collection is how much he was influenced by outside sources. His brush strokes grow agitated and thick in one oil painting, then light and Cezanne-like in the next. He has watercolors and charcoals and experiments with shadow and light. He has a series of cubist still lifes. But the subject matter hardly changes: it is almost always a white vase or a stack of bowls in muted colors. It is as though he spent his whole life trying to see the same objects in a thousand different ways, borrowing eyes from his friends when he needed them.
Reading is not much different than that. We are reading so in hopes of seeing a fresh take on the same old, same old. Occasionally readers pay homage to the story by passing it on, verbally or musically or artistically.
In “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem describes receiving a copy of his own first novel as a gift. Artist Robert The had cut Gun, With Occasional Music into the shape of a pistol. Lethem was charmed by this reincarnation of his work. “The fertile spirit of stray connection this appropriated object conveyed back to me – ?the strange beauty of its second use – ?was a reward for being a published writer I could never have fathomed in advance. And the world makes room for both my novel and Robert The’s gun-book. There’s no need to choose between the two.”
When I met Margaret Atwood last year, she said she has been pleased with the things she had inspired others to create. “Your work gets away from you and takes on a complete other life. People go to Halloween parties dressed as the Handmaid’s Tale,” she said. “I am very much not against it.”
“Who Built America?,” software published in 1991 that I previously blogged about, uses a word instead of a “back” button. The word is “Retrace.” I think this is a lovely precursor to the modern arrow. There is an art to the way we retrace each step of a book’s life. Stories are often recycled, and we can understand them when we understand the way they were cut and tailored by each author. Both Lethem and Atwood embrace the idea that their work will take new form beyond their words – and that this is a compliment.

If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones – ?more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths – ?The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don’t strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.
-Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence”

As Johanna Drucker calls it, the “e-space of books” – the space in an author’s brain that we have the privilege of exploring through the text – is under-served by the printed page. In a way, the works that have been plundered will have the chance to be credited again. Why not link from Ovid to Shakespeare to The Simpsons? Why not allow the worlds that exist in e-space to nestle into the archives of cultural consciousness?
I’m a very greedy reader. I want more of everything: I want to know how the literature is related to current events, how it’s perceived by critics, who helped to edit the book, who the author’s friends were, who was writing upon a similar theme at that time, whether the fiction is grounded in fact, and what other readers thought of the ending. To my delight, plenty of readers have usually broadcast their thoughts in a dozen formats.
It’s hard to stay in print or on television for more than a minute, but entering readers’ minds is a very real way to stay alive. While the doom and gloom of recent articles has made it sound like readers are on the verge of extinction, we could scarcely be further from it.

In fact, we are more literate, more capable, more connected, and more potentially engaged than at any time in human history.
Mark Bauerlein

Imagine for a moment the possibilities a story might present. Cain and Able alone could lead you to the Wandering Cain of Mormon folklore, to 15C representations of the characters, to the history of martyrdom, to Lord Byron’s poem “Cain,” to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, to Bloc Party’s “Cain Said to Able” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Adam Raised a Cain,” to the Simpson’s clip of the Flanders kids playing Cain and Able in a home movie. This is a copyright nightmare, but sometimes authors have to let go. Otherwise they’ll never see people at Halloween parties dressed as their characters, and they’ll never allow themselves the breadth of information available with this kind of free exchange.
But Morandi’s work benefited from the network of visionaries he knew. Without them, all he had was a white vase. Networked books aren’t a new concept, they’re just a new way to display the relationships between texts and other media.
There has always been a network in art and storytelling. And that network doesn’t fit cleanly between two covers.

wordia – new definitions of literacy?

This morning, I went to Samuel Johnson’s house (now a museum dedicated to 18th-century London) in the old City of London. Today is (or would have been) Samuel Johnson’s birthday; the occasion was the launch of Wordia, a new startup that lets users define individual words in video and upload them to the site.
(The launch invitation came, cheekily, in the form of a Times obituary for the dictionary.)
Wordia aims to create an ever-evolving ‘dictionary’ of vox-pop word definitions: “a democratic ‘visual dictionary’ […] where anyone with a video, webcam or mobile phone can define the words that matter to them in their life.” Founded by TV producer Ed Baker, the site is supported by HarperCollins, the UK’s National Literacy Trust and the Open University amongst others, and already boasts a veritable glossolalia of video’d word definitions.
It started me thinking about the relationship between dictionaries and power – who claims the right to be the determiners of ‘acceptable’ usage and definition? One of the functions of Johnson’s original dictionary was to standardize spelling – which, in Shakespeare’s era, was pretty much a free-for-all – and to enshrine ‘proper’ or ‘Standard English’ as one of the markers of those permitted to access the centers of power. At that level, a democratic dictionary is in some senses a contradiction in terms: if a dictionary is where you go to settle disputes about definition, then what happens when a ‘dictionary’ becomes the locus for those disputes?
One possible answer is that its strongest field may end up being neologism – or, to put it another way, slang. At the launch, I asked a member of Wordia’s team: aren’t you worried that the most popular area for definition will be those where language is most in flux – ie slang, obscenity and insult? (I’m thinking, amongst other things, about (NSFW link) Dan Savage’s attack on Joe Santorum through the medium of neologism…). While the avowed intent – democratizing the power to define – is a laudable one, won’t moderation be a major concern? And doesn’t that invalidate the whole exercise?
Arguably, though, Urban Dictionary has already cornered the market in this kind of demotic definition. For one thing, it has the advantage of anonymity: the submission form urbandictionary uses is a far more appealing interface for uploading foul language than Wordia’s, which requires each submission to be spoken to camera. And Wordia’s mission – at least as far as I can gather from the About pages – is more high-minded than Urban Dictionary’s brutally relativist ‘Define Your World’, and reflects instead enthusiasm for language generally and an ambition to broaden our understanding of what literacy is.
I’ll be following Wordia with interest- will they get enough videos to generate a satisfying mass of content? Are other people’s definitions of words interesting enough to browse? Time will tell. But the site reflects a general online trend away from the playful (and often base and ugly) anarchy of unmoderated chatter towards tidier, better-managed and more mainstream approaches to user-generated material. Perhaps the Web is growing up. And in any case, Wordia provides one more link between the language/power debates of the Augustan print boom, and today’s ongoing struggles to learn just how much, how little (or just how) language, power and the Web will interact to shape our culture.

History is written by the readers

Pardon me for plagiarizing Churchill, but the victors aren’t the only ones writing history these days. At the Institute, we’re re-imagining the American History Project’s “Who Built America?”, hoping to re-imagine the sort of information in this CD-ROM from 1991, converting now into a more malleable form. Dan Piepenbring blogged about this as well. The CD-ROM, as a point of reference, is impossible for us to go in and edit or update. What was there in 1991 is there today; it’s stagnant.
A networked history book changes everything. We are moving past the pretense of a single objective history, and moving into a discourse constructed by historians, teachers, and students. It has been said that to study history is to participate in it. We can add another layer of truth to this: those who study history will simultaneously write history. As they read, they may add links, annotations, comments, etc. Wikipedia has done this, but not in such a way that it is trusted as an academic resource. We need to blend the prestige of historians and the wealth of available original sources into a multimedia form that is easy to navigate and change.
This is beneficial because history books are so quickly outdated; history is happening, well, every minute, and of the millions of news stories published daily, each one has archiving potential. And our hunger for analyses of everything that’s happening has never been more important. No one can navigate through all of the information of The Information Age on her own; editors and shared links are essential. Newspapers are supposedly dying, whereas the demand for subjective accounts of news (blogs, etc.) is thriving.
What “Who Built America?” does best is linking sections of the book to original sources. Where a textbook may say, “Frederick Douglass was a great orator,” the networked book can present audio clips from Douglass’s original speeches. The reader will ostensibly conclude that Douglass was an orator, but the reader comes to this conclusion herself rather than trusting the author’s adjective choice. While one could always formulate a case for some sort of bias based on the limits of the audio clips available and those the editors of the network book first choose to present, dissenters would have their own say in the comment bar. If a book is linked to internet sources supplied by readers, there would be limits to what is presented but not many. Like Wikipedia, one could never sit down and read all available information in a single day.
And rather than sitting down to read the material in a linear way, the reader could zip from one medium to the next, perusing many areas of interest simultaneously.
The power of synthesizing these media is that one can study history through Hemingway’s letters and Zora Neale Hurston’s first short story, through Charlie Chaplin films and “The Birth of a Nation,” through Woodie Guthrie songs and FDR’s fireside chats. With scholars’ input, we could view these simultaneously through a kaleidoscope of critical lenses. It’s like opening many tabs within the browser of your brain. And far from “making us stupid,” the diversity of perspectives and formats ought to enrich our comprehension of the material.
We read history because the range of experiences we have in one life is never enough to teach us what we could learn in a thousand lives. Reading in a networked format requires a similar humility.
As Bob asked recently, what does an editor do in this brave new world? Let’s assume for now that there is a single person monitoring comments and links. The role of the editor, then, is to aggregate scholarly references and call the reader’s attention to the most germane comments. I think there is a market for this: a trustworthy source is worth an investment. (Perhaps this is not true of everyone, but I find myself inclined to buy wine from the shop-owner who can tell me what will compliment exactly what I’m having for dinner that evening; I like to tell my haircutter that I have an interview and a vacation coming up, and let her decide what style is both easy to maintain and professional-looking; I talk to people in bookstores who share favorite fiction writers so that I can get their recommendations before I purchase something. Kevin Kelly is right. Technology like this may be viable if it’s done in a personalized and findable way. There are many types of readers, and with more media available to them, we can cater to the needs of casual readers as well as serious academics. Schools are laden with both. This raises an issue of how we best suit the needs of each reader, but that will have to be borne of a dialogue with the readers in question.) It may be that the editor’s task is simple: to listen to the readers, and mediate conversations they want to have with one another inside the text.
Because we the readers are limited in time and space (such a pesky bug in the network of the universe), we will presumably edit and annotate differently as time moves forward. We will have to account for these contradictions; truth is a slippery thing. Right now a book exists within a liminal space, and history books are able to ascribe a narrative to the information they present. But that backbone of literature will have to stretch and curve when symbols and events are constantly changing, and when we are constantly changing our minds.

Unearthing a Multimedia Time Capsule

Microsoft Multimedia Schubert was published fifteen years ago, in 1993. Developed by the Voyager Company, the program was one of many in an early “Microsoft Multimedia Catalog.” It allows users to engage in a close reading of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, illuminated with Alan Rich’s moment-by-moment commentary. Rendered in text, Rich’s comments are programmed to appear at specific instances during each movement.
Though such multimedia CD-ROMs are commonplace by today’s standards, MS Schubert and its ilk came at a time when designers were seriously rethinking what was possible in the realm of multimedia. There’s much to learn from their spirit of innovation.
For instance, Voyager, Rich and co. flesh out their disc with a glossary of musical taxonomy, a brief history of the sonata form, and encyclopedic accounts of Schubert’s life and work; there’s even a modest Schubert game, in which listeners attempt to identify randomly-generated audio fragments of the Trout Quintet. (My high score: zero.) All in all, I think the CD-ROM constitutes an elegant combination of aural, textual and visual elements. It’s an inspired precursor to more comprehensive CD-ROM encyclopedias like Encarta, and its close reading is still valuable today. Not too shabby, for ’93.


Obviously, the intervening years have seen enormous advancements in computing and the rise of the Web, which could give the Schubert multimedia suite a new lease on life. In the coming months, we’ll ask scholars and musicians what they want out of a multimodal close reading, and how a new generation of electronic books can serve those needs. How can we abet in-depth listening and foster a discussion of music’s nuances? For that matter, which musicians and works ought to be included in an initial library of close readings, and who (if anyone) should lead them?
Of course, not every ’90s idea was an earth-shattering success, but there are lessons in the failures. In 1995, for instance, Microsoft debuted its oft-derided Bob operating system, which immersed novices in a house-like virtual environment where program icons took the form of everyday domestic objects: shelved books, rolodexes, bank ledgers left on coffee tables. Was it horrendously executed and functionally flawed? Yes. Tacky, juvenile? Those, too. But the Bob OS was also giddy with multimedia possibility – it was a dicey proposition in an industry with damn too few of them. See for yourself:

The thought of spending my days in Bob’s syrupy universe is a frightening one. But I wonder: did it flop because of its gung-ho cuteness, or because of its experimental premise?
It’s crucial, I feel, to approach our new projects with the “what if…?” mentality that reigned, however briefly, in early-’90s projects like Schubert and Bob. The latter bombed, yeah, but it was a well-intentioned failure. In some ways, it attempted to change how operating systems should look, feel and perform – even if those attempts were half-hearted and immediately superseded by Windows 95.
As the norms of our gadget-usage continue to cement themselves, it’s going to get harder and harder to abandon our preconceptions of what multimedia can accomplish, i.e., of how stuff should work. In revitalizing and updating projects like Schubert, we have a perfect opportunity to learn from the past: what it got right, what it botched abysmally, and its wide-eyed awe as to the future’s potential.

children’s books and control

There’s a surprisingly intriguing exchange in a recent Bookworm program, where Michael Silverblatt interviews Françoise Mouly about her new line of children’s books, a spinoff of the Little Lit books she’s been putting out with Art Spiegelman. Not surprisingly, Mouly ran into resistance from established publishing houses when trying to put out the sort of books she was interested in; she took matters into her own hands, and started her own publishing house, Toon Books. In the interview, Silverblatt asks her about the psychology behind children’s book, a subject she’s thought about in detail:

Françoise Mouly vs Michael Silverblatt (excerpt) – Bookworm

FRANÇOISE MOULY: We’re being told certainly when we move around in the world of children’s book publishing that, you know, kids are into fantasy and you have to stimulate the imagination. And actually when I was doing this I learned so much that educators and teachers and attentive parents know: the opposite is true. Kids live in the world, and what they want, and certainly what they want from their books, they want order. And they want a way of naming things. And they want to be able to organize what is perceived as this chaotic series of sensory input into something that makes sense.

MICHAEL SILVERBLATT: In at least two of the books, and many children’s books besides, I recognize that craving for order is matched by the threat of chaos. What would happen if the child had its own way, or what would happen if chaos, say in the form of The Cat in the Hat, were to visit and gain access when the sources of order, the parents, are not at home. And so in another in the first series of books, Otto’s Orange Day, Otto gets only one wish from a genie, and Otto’s favorite color is orange. And so everything turns orange, and the story is – you see, I didn’t realize this before – implicitly about what would happen if the child were to get his own way in everything. It’s very, in its way, secretly authoritarian . . .

(The program can be listened to in full here.) The issue of control that Mouly brings up is interesting to me: it seems intuitively correct that children want a sense of order and control over the world in books. I’m curious what happens if we look at adults as well as children, especially in a world in which the book is being radically reshaped. Are we reticent to accept new forms because we still need this sense of control? A book on a computer screen is profoundly ambiguous: we have no sense of how long it might be, or where its boundaries are when it contains hyperlinks. We can’t control an electronic book in the same way that we could control a book in our hands when we were children. A question, then, which isn’t meant as rhetorical: is it childish to still want to do so?