Category Archives: reading

a blast from the past or a glimpse of the future — both are true

Twenty years ago Voyager published the first edition of 3Sixty, a catalog celebrating the emerging forms of new media. Most of the titles were from Voyager, but there was a selection of others from Gallimard, Dorling Kindersley, Microsoft and others. The design (Alexander Isley) and writing (Ashton Applewhite) are particularly noteworthy. One of my favorite bits is the account on page 46 of a reader’s first experience with an ebook.

Click the first thumbnail to show a full-size image. Then click on the image to advance to the next or use the forward backward arrows near the top. Many of the images have a video of the work described on the 3Sixty page.


I came home from my first year at college, reeling from culture shock unrecognized until much later, to a job at the local natural history museum. I was in charge of their live reptile exhibit, a perennial summer attraction in Rockford, Illinois. By the summer of 1996, my third year running it, the live reptile exhibit had lost much of its novelty with the locals; the occasional lost family from Wisconsin wandered in, and every once in a while a VBS class would come to admire God’s scaly creations, but most of the time I was left alone with the reptiles in the museum, an old Victorian mansion built during times when Rockford had a more promising future ahead than its rust belt present.
Running the live reptile exhibit was not the nicest job I’ve worked at – biting, for example, has not been so much of a concern in my subsequent employment. But the museum was a couple of blocks away from the Rockford Public Library, and I was well stocked with reading material. Even to one as oblivious as myself it was clear that Infinite Jest had been the big book of the previous year; there were cloud-covered posters in the windows of Wordsworth’s. Over the summer I could catch up, I thought, and I made my way through the library’s copy of the book, then Girl with Curious Hair, then The Broom of the System, which I may have had to buy.
I was at a point in my life when I was impressionable, and Wallace made an impression on me. Part of what bowled me over about Infinite Jest was the sense of place embedded in the book. It’s a book about Boston, where I’d just spent the year; I couldn’t claim to be an expert on the city, but there were places that I recognized in the book. I don’t know that to that point I’d read anything about a place I knew: nobody writes books about Midwestern cities and towns, or if they do, they do it in such a way as to make it clear that all those places are entirely interchangeable. (I later accused Ben Marcus of writing the most honest book yet about how it is to grow up in the Midwest in The Age of Wire and String; he told me he’d never been there, but it sounded nice. So it goes.)
But that sense of connection, especially in something someone was writing now: that was important. Reading Wallace then was like reading Salinger on my own during high school, that same shock of recognition. Wallace’s writing exuded possibility to me in a way that others’ hadn’t. The was the knowledge that the world couldn’t be wrapped up nicely with a bow – obvious now, and an idea older than Tristram Shandy, but one that was surprising to me then. Helen DeWitt noted a Wallace interview where he explains his endnotes:

There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about . . . writing about that reality is that text is very linear and it’s very unified, and . . . I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorienting – I mean, you can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but nobody’s gonna read it.

As a reader, I hear an echo in this of a speech by an artist in Gaddis’s The Recognitions, a book I’d immerse myself in no small part because of a comparison in a blurb on the back of Infinite Jest:

. . . Why, all this around us is for people who can keep their balance only in the light, where they move as though nothing were fragile, nothing tempered by possibility, and all of a sudden bang! something breaks. Then you have to stop and put the pieces together again. But you never can put them back together quite the same way. You stop when you can and expose things, and leave them within reach, and others come on by themselves, and they break, and even then you may put the pieces aside just out of reach until you can bring them back and show them, put together slightly different, maybe a little more enduring, until you’ve broken it and picked up the pieces enough times, and you have the whole thing in all its dimensions. But the discipline, the detail, it’s just . . . sometimes the accumulation is too much to bear.

Others will find their own echoes. Thinking about Wallace for the past few days, I find myself thinking more about he affected me as a reader than about anything particular in his writing. In the years after reading Infinite Jest, I kept finding myself noticing things that Wallace had borrowed from others, which came almost as little winks – realizing that Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, had been appropriated almost wholesale from Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos, recognizing with hindsight that the subplot about The Entertainment was a reworking of Joseph McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge, noticing, in short, that Wallace had been in every room I entered before me. Infinite Jest itself wasn’t really a book that I went back to, though I did eventually buy my own copy. I’d internalized it, and found the book had become a part of myself, something so basic that I found myself presuming that everyone interesting around me must have also read it. (This is a faulty assumption that would repeat: later, I’d catch myself thinking that everyone must have read Proust, that life without Proust was inconceivable.) I had been changed. Part of the reason I didn’t return to Infinite Jest was a fear that something so important wouldn’t be the same – returning to Salinger, I’d found his characters cloying and affected, coming off like the creations of a creepy old man. The books hadn’t changed, but I had.
For my money, Wallace’s masterpiece was “The Suffering Channel,” the last novella in Oblivion, which harrowingly explores a universal problem, “the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance” through the lens of the celebrity-entertainment complex. (It is, for what it’s worth, a piece that I have been able to go back to repeatedly.) In a characteristic touch, a sinister production company has the Portuguese motto A consciência é o pesadelo da natureza. A character translates this as “consciousness is nature’s nightmare.” This is only half accurate, and I think it’s interesting what Wallace leaves out: the Portuguese consciência, like the Italian coscienza (famously used in the title of Svevo’s book), can mean both consciousness and conscience. Conscience is also nature’s nightmare; existence is always a moral issue, an idea that works its way through all of Wallace’s work.
I can’t claim that I knew Wallace – I met him in passing at a book signing, where he was kind and more generous than he needed to be. But certainly there’s a sense of kinship: to realize that you’re reading the same books that a writer once read. The book is Kafka’s axe to smash the frozen sea inside of us: to read can be to recognize that one is not alone in the world, to find yourself reflected in another’s language. The book Wallace signed for me I lost years ago, abandoned in storage above a carpet factory in Somerville; these things happen, and they’re not worth dwelling upon. But when I heard the news of Wallace’s death – late Saturday night, at the drunken end of an enjoyable wedding – it felt like I’d lost a part of myself. Part of that reaction is aleatory: Wallace’s writing found me at the right time. But it’s not entirely chance: so much of the power of language is its ability to transcend the body, to transcend the book.

a serious shot at screen reading

Another new online magazine: Triple Canopy (noted by Ed Park). Unlike Issue and Rosa B. this isn’t a design magazine – although the content is very interesting – but like them, it’s a serious attempt to construct a new kind of magazine for the screen-reading environment. While Rosa B.‘s design uses the affordances of dynamic layering, Issue concentrates on reader annotation, Triple Canopy simply does away with the scroll bar.
Removing the scroll bar is an obvious idea for improving screen reading that’s only rarely implemented: when you read text with a scroll bar (like this blog), the reader is forced to remove their concentration from the text to scroll down and then to find where the reading left off. It’s something we’re all quite used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s an advantageous reading behavior; we put up with because we rarely have a choice. Triple Canopy reverts from the scroll bar to the paged model of the codex book: if you click on the “+” sign to the right of the page, a new page slides in. It’s obvious where to resume reading. The text itself is well-cared for: it’s presented in columns of legible width, another lesson of print design that’s too often ignored in the online world. Worth noting as well is the way that images are integrated into some of the texts; again, there’s a clear and understood model for how reading works. Video can be slotted into some of the pieces without causing a disturbance or overwhelming: it appears on a page by itself, meant to be the primary focus of attention.
It’s not entirely perfect: while the “+” sign always advances a page, “–” sometimes goes back a page and sometimes goes to the previous article (if clicked on the first page of the article). I wish clicking the “triplecanopy” at the bottom took you back to the issue’s table of contents and not the magazine’s front page. Because the site’s made in HTML, the design breaks if you increase or decrease the font size in your browser. And the Powerpoint-style wipe when the pages change quickly grows tiresome. But these are minor quibbles with a design that’s overwhelmingly successful. I’ll be curious to see if this is sustainable over more issues.

expressive processing: post-game analysis begins

So Noah’s just wrapped up the blog peer review of his manuscript in progress, and is currently debating whether to post the final, unfinished chapter. He’s also just received the blind peer reviews from MIT Press and is in the process of comparing them with the online discussion. That’ll all be written up soon, we’re still discussing format.
Meanwhile, Ian Bogost (the noted game designer, critic and professor) started an interesting thread a couple of weeks back on the troubles of reading Expressive Processing, and by extension, any long-form text or argument, on the Web:

The peer review part of the project seems to be going splendidly. But here’s a problem, at least for me: I’m having considerable trouble reading the book online. A book, unlike a blog, is a lengthy, sustained argument with examples and supporting materials. A book is textual, of course, and it can thus be serialized easily into a set of blog posts. But that doesn’t make the blog posts legible as a book…
…in their drive to move textual matter online, creators of online books and journals have not thought enough about the materiality of specific print media forms. This includes both the physicality of the artifacts themselves (I violently dogear and mark up my print matter) and the contexts in which people read them (I need to concentrate and avoid distraction when reading scholarship). These factors extend beyond scholarship too: the same could be said of newspapers and magazines, which arguably read much more casually and serendipitously in print form than they do in online form.
I’ve often considered Bolter and Grusin’s term “remediation” to be a derogatory one. Borrowing and refashioning the conventions of one medium in another opens the risk ignoring what unremediated features are lost. The web has still not done much more than move text (or images, or video) into a new distribution channel. Digitizing and uploading analog material is easy and has immediate, significant impact: web, iPod, YouTube. We’ve prized simple solutions because they are cheap and easy, but they are also insufficient. In the case of books and journal articles, to offer a PDF or print version of the online matter is to equivocate. And the fashionable alternative, a metaverse-like 3D web of the sort to which Second Life points, strikes me as a dismal sidestepping of the question.

step inside the books: new york event this friday (3/21)

If you’re in the New York area, don’t miss this. Friday, March 21, 2008, 7-9pm – ?New York, NY – ?125 Maiden Lane, 2nd Floor.
FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY: Step inside three books, drink free beer and wine, and experience the future of the book:
Mark Batty Publisher, Hotel St. George Press, the Institute for the Future of the Book, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council‘s Workspace Writers Residency program offer a night of multi-media readings that invite attendees to step inside books, celebrating how new media and traditional publishing fuse to create innovative projects that are more than “just books.” On this night, authors Garth Risk Hallberg, Alex Rose, and Alex Itin demonstrate how their stories rely on more than just words.
Hallberg’s illustrated novella, A Field Guide to the North American Family, documents two fictional families through 63 entries accompanied by evocative photographs contributed by some of today’s freshest photographic talents, as culled from the book’s ongoing companion website, Read from start to finish or in a “choose your own adventure” style, Hallberg’s attention to narrative detail makes clear why he was included in the 2008 Harcourt Best New American Voices anthology, and why Print called A Field Guide to the North American Family “a modern illuminated manuscript.” Hallberg will project photographs from the book.
The interwoven, post-modern folktales that comprise The Musical Illusionist by Alex Rose muse upon historical arcana, tethered together by music and topography. Drawing on his experience as a director whose films, videos, and animations have appeared on HBO, MTV, Comedy Central, Showtime, and the BBC, Rose conjures, in the words of the Village Voice, “the playful parables of Jorge Luis Borges . . . exotic maps and exquisite prints further suggest a volume passed down from an epoch much more enthralled with mystery than our own.” Rose will read from the title story of his collection, accompanied by a surround-sound score composed by David Little and recorded by the Formalist Quartet.
As an artist-in-residence at Brooklyn’s Institute for the Future of the Book, Alex Itin uses text, original illustrations and animations, and music to encourage readers to reconsider the definition of a book. Take for example Itin’s Orson Whales: Melville’s Moby Dick meets Orson Welles, and Led Zeppelin. Itin’s multi-media books will be screened.
The LMCC is the leading voice for arts and culture in downtown New York City, producing cultural events and promoting the arts through grants, services, advocacy, and cultural development programs.

student designer envisions a more credible kindle

Engagdet points to an award winning Australian student design for an e-book reader that combines the gesture-based “multi-touch” interface of the iPhone with the e-ink display of the Kindle.
LIVRE design concept -? Nedzad Mujcinovic, Monash University
“Interaction happens via a thin capacitive touch screen mounted on top of an electronic paper screen (‘eINK’). Browsing pages happens by striking the screen from right bottom corner towards the centre of page to go forward or from the left hand corner to go backwards. Doing that using one finger will browse one page, two will browse ten pages and three will browse fifty pages at a time.”
If simple reenactment of basic black-and-white, illustration-light print reading is your goal, I’d say that this is a far more viable proposition than Amazon’s clunky gadget. (Thanks, Peter Brantley, for the link!)

penguin of forking paths

Following on last year’s wiki novel, Penguin will soon launch another digital fiction experiment, this time focused on nonlinear storytelling. From Jeremy Ettinghausen on the Penguin blog:

…in a few weeks Penguin will be embarking on an experiment in storytelling (yes, another one, I hear you sigh). We’ve teamed up with some interesting folk and challenged some of our top authors to write brand new stories that take full advantage of the functionalities that the internet has to offer – this will be great writing, but writing in a form that would not have been possible 200, 20 or even 2 years ago. If you want to be alerted when this project launches sign up here – all will be revealed in March.

The “interesting folk” link goes to Unfiction, the main forum for the alternative reality gaming community. Intriguing…

“naked in the ‘nonopticon'”

If you haven’t already, check out Siva Vaidhyanathan‘s excellent Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on privacy and surveillance: a review of several new books treating various aspects of the topic, but a great all-around thought piece. A taste:

Certainly the Stasi in East Germany exploited the controlling power generated from public knowledge of constant surveillance and the potential for brutal punishment for thought crimes. But that is not our environment in the United States. Basically, the Panopticon must be visible and ubiquitous, or it cannot influence behavior as Bentham and Foucault assumed it would.
…what we have at work in America today is the opposite of a Panopticon: what has been called a “Nonopticon” (for lack of a better word). The Nonopticon describes a state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it. The most pervasive surveillance does not reveal itself or remains completely clandestine (barring leaks to The New York Times). We don’t know all the ways we are being recorded or profiled. We are not supposed to understand that we are the product of marketers as much as we are the market. And we are not supposed to consider the extent to which the state tracks our behavior and considers us all suspects in crimes yet to be imagined, let alone committed.
In fact, companies like ChoicePoint, Facebook, Google, and want us to relax and be ourselves. They have an interest in exploiting niches that our consumer choices generate. They are devoted to tracking our eccentricities because they understand that the ways we set ourselves apart from the mass are the things about which we are most passionate. Our passions, predilections, fancies, and fetishes are what we are likely to spend our surplus cash on.

And so these concerns extend to the realm of online reading. With networked texts, a book (or whatever other document form) may be reading you while you’re reading it. This creates a major ethical quandary for libraries of course, who, to take advantage of social networking, collaborative filtering and other powerful affordances of digital technologies must radically revise their traditional stance on privacy: i.e. retain as little user data as possible.

“books are social vectors”

Some choice quotes from Ursula K. Le Guin’s terrific new Harper’s essay, “Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading” (unfortunately behind pay wall):

Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.
…I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that. How-to books and the like have some market predictability. But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature -? art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage.