The Times yesterday ran a pretty decent article, “Digital Publishing Is Scrambling the Industry’s Rules”, discussing some recent experiments in book publishing online. One we’ve discussed here previously, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, which is available as both a hefty 500-page brick from Yale University Press and in free PDF chapter downloads. There’s also a corresponding readers’ wiki for collective annotation and discussion of the text online. It was an adventurous move for an academic press, though they could have done a better job of integrating the text with the discussion (it would have been fantastic to do something like GAM3R 7H30RY with Benkler’s book).
Also discussed is the new Mark Danielewski novel. His first book, House of Leaves, was published by Pantheon in 2000 after circulating informally on the web among a growing cult readership. His sophmore effort, due out in September, has also racked up some pre-publication mileage, but in a more controlled experiment. According to the Times, the book “will include hundreds of margin notes listing moments in history suggested online by fans of his work who have added hundreds of annotations, some of which are to be published in the physical book’s margins.” Annotations were submitted through an online forum on Danielewski’s web site, a forum that does not include a version of the text (though apparently 60 “digital galleys” were distributed to an inner circle of devoted readers).
The Times piece ends with an interesting quote from Danielewski, who, despite his roots in networked samizdat, is still ultimately focused on the book as a carefully crafted physical reading experience:
Mr. Danielewski said that the physical book would persist as long as authors figure out ways to stretch the format in new ways. “Only Revolutions,” he pointed out, tracks the experiences of two intersecting characters, whose narratives begin at different ends of the book, requiring readers to turn it upside down every eight pages to get both of their stories. “As excited as I am by technology, I’m ultimately creating a book that can’t exist online,” he said. “The experience of starting at either end of the book and feeling the space close between the characters until you’re exactly at the halfway point is not something you could experience online. I think that’s the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books.”
Fragmented as our reading habits (and lives) have become, there’s a persistent impulse, especially in fiction, toward the linear. Danielewski is probably right that the new networked modes of reading and writing might serve to buttress rather than unravel the old ways. Playing with the straight line (twisting it, braiding it, chopping it) is the writer’s art, and a front-to-end vessel like the book is a compelling restraint in which to work. This made me think of Anna Karenina, which is practically two novels braided together, the central characters, Anna and Levin, meeting just once, and then only glancingly.
I prefer to think of the networked book not as a replacement for print but as a parallel. What’s particularly interesting is how the two can inform one another, how a physical book can end up being changed and charged by its journey through a networked process. This certainly will be the case for the two books in progress the Institute is currently hosting, Mitch Stephens’ history of atheism and Ken Wark’s critical theory of video games. Though the books will eventually be “cooked” by a print publisher — Carroll & Graf, in Mitch’s case, and a university press (possibly Harvard or MIT), in Ken’s — they will almost certainly end up different for their having been networkshopped. Situating the book’s formative phase in the network can further boost the voltage between the covers.
An analogy. The more we learn about the evolution of biological life, the more we understand that the origin of species seldom follows a linear path. There’s a good deal of hybridization, random mutation, and general mixing. A paper recently published in Nature hypothesizes that the genetic link between humans and chimpanzees is at least a million years more recent than had previously been thought based on fossil evidence. The implication is that, for millennia, proto-chimps and proto-humans were interbreeding in a torrid cross-species affair.
Eventually, species become distinct (or extinct), but for long stretches it’s a story of hybridity. And so with media. Things are not necessarily replaced, but rather changed. Photography unleashed Impressionism from the paint brush; television, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book argues, acted as a foil for the postmodern American novel. The blog and the news aggregator may not kill the newspaper, but they will undoubtedly change it. And so the book. You see that glint in the chimp’s eye? A period of interbreeding has commenced.