Friday, May 28, 2010

The Hydra, the Chorus, the Geist, the Book: Chronicle of evolution in action.

Last weekend I attended The Richard Hugo House's excellent event "Finding Your Readers in the 21st Century". Writers were encouraged to sign up for this two-day event filled with panels on a wide range of topics; blogging, self-marketing, social media, e-publishing, self-publishing, and more. The keynote speech on Friday night was inspiring. Matthew Stadler, of Publication Studio, interviewed 3 lecturers who presented on the publishing industry, past present and future. Barbara Sjoholm (past), Alan Rinzler (present), and Jeff Vandermeer (future) set a tone of empowerment and optimism that persisted throughout the weekend. I was there for a panel on self-publishing using the Espresso Book Machine, and also running a table in the Small Press Fair on the main floor of the house. It was there that I kept on having interesting conversations with aspiring (and published) authors on the nature of publishing. I feel the weekend was a success, and can't wait to participate next year. But all the while, in the back of my mind, an idea I'd mentioned 2 posts ago kept coming to the surface.

All this strife and consternation over e-book versus the physical book in newspapers and magazines and on blogs seems to me, to be chasing its tail. What needs to happen is a dramatic re-envisioning of the whole argument. 

If we treat the book as an evolutionary marker for the transmission of narratives, rather than a beginning, and treat the e-book as a divergence from this relatively young 'species', the book, we begin to see some remarkable possibilities in the way we tell stories.

We begin with the Book, which for 500 years or so, has defined the relationship between storyteller and audience. The book overtook the oral tradition, codified the structure of language, and allowed the storyteller (writer) to acutely control the reader's experience. But it was still a participatory event, the words drifted off the page into the mind of the reader, where it then underwent transformation from abstract to 'concrete' in the mind's eye. Neil Gaiman and others have likened this as a form of telepathy, transmitted by the author, who is not in the room (or even alive in some cases). Over time, literary movements and tastes merged, split, and further evolved. By the 19th century, traditional narratives began to sit on shelves alongside experimental, and structure-shirking works. During these phases, the very essence of the book never wavered.

The Geist (otherwise known as the e-book, which is really a ghost of the book) began a transform the book's essence. At risk was the linearity, and according to some, the concept of a 'page'. Publishers have taken lazy swipes at defining the shape of the Geist, but for now it's mostly a electronic facsimile of a bound book, with page numbering, chapters, and covers. The format of the Geist might allow for interesting changes in form and function, and the way narratives work. Take away the page numbering, and the human mind begins to fall deeper into a narrative; there's no 'clock ticking' till page xx reveals the final sentence. Untethered from this subtle cue, readers figuratively drown in words, in story. Paragraphing changes may change the way we interpret stories-- I often joke with co-workers that I could spot a Jose Saramago book a mile off, because his paragraphs often last for pages. This may seem daunting to a reader, and yet, Saramago sells, and has a devoted following. Writers may begin to ask themselves why they write their paragraphs the way they do. Do they create short ones, to keep the readers from drifting off? Are writers themselves intimidated by the sheer bulk of a page-long paragraph? I'm just spinning ideas out there, but the Geist has some evolutionary potential that needs to be explored.

The Chorus is what is currently being described as an 'enhanced e-book', which is incorrect, because the Chorus offers a larger growth potential than the Geist. The very nature of the Chorus is social; with the advent of e-readers and wi-fi, we can begin to see the social aspect of reading. Whereas the Book and the Geist are solitary affairs, the Chorus offers readers a new way to experience a book. Social network sites like Goodreads and Librarything already show that readers want to connect with each other over what they read. The Chorus would allow readers with the appropriate App to chronicle their journey through a novel by tagging comments and notes on their e-reader, and through wi-fi, share them with friends and strangers. A Chorus reader would have the option of switching off this ever-fluid marginalia, to experience the story like a Geist. After, they could come back through the narrative with the marginalia switch on, and see what opinions appeared. The possibility for the urge for fan-fiction to directly overlap with a narrative creates interesting ideas; this is not the same as a collaborative novel, as the Chorus would be geared for a structured narrative with social network elements. Writers who are savvy to the Chorus' format might conceive of new ways to tell stories; perhaps purposely fractured narratives, perhaps literary Easter eggs/treasure hunts. The most important potential of the Chorus would be to engage society in a continual dialog about literature, and perhaps bring more reluctant readers into the fold.

The Hydra, offers the most profound evolution of narrative, as it would draw from two less-likely sources and one familiar: Art (as in Photography and illustration), audio and cinema. Early cinema used narratives borrowed from literature, but within 20 years, cinema evolved its own narrative language, introducing parallel stories, chronological shifts with ever-increasing frequency, the ability to disorient the viewer to temporarily convey emotional states (fear, joy, confusion, etc), and ultimately, the power of a single image to elicit a multitude of thoughts from the viewer. Some of these techniques eventually worked their way into the toolkit of late-20th century novelists. I call this format the Hydra (otherwise known as the multi-media book) because if one considers the idea that narrative/storytelling is the core, then this format allows multiple 'heads' or modes to convey a story. A Hydra will engage the reader/viewer in a multi-sensory manner; as one reads, sound effects may well up, then, at a vital moment in the story it might shift into a video clip, which might be overlaid with music or, audio narration of the text. The trend of creating 'book trailers' hints at the Hydra's possibilities. But let's make one thing clear: the Hydra is NOT a book. At least it shouldn't be. If publishers attempt to simply create what would amount to a book with Ads and some noise, then everyone loses out on new ways to tell stories.

Why the funny names? Well in the occult theory of magickal systems, to name a thing, gives it shape; it also gives one power over it. The current language circulating is clunky and badly thought out, and as such, does not allow the mind to strive for elegant solutions. Each format should be explored without the stigma of 'the Book format'. Humans crave stories, regardless of what David Shields says, and I believe that if we allow these other forms to evolve freely, the reward may be a deeper evolution of the human mind.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Updates, printings, recommendations Old-Skool style.

It's been a while since I posted. I say that all the time. Let's just get on with it shall we?

A bunch of printing and book designing has been going on, and hopefully I can give you a sufficient wrap up.

We've been printing copies of a book titled "The Northwest Collection of Music for the Scottish Highland Bagpipe" by John G. Dally; Reprinting copies of "Mountains of the Night" by Bruce Taylor; reprints of "HASH" (the Concept Proof edition) by Charles Cox; "Monsieur and His Art: a Serious Word to Germany's Riders" by Louis Seeger, translated & book designed by Cynthia Hodges; a novel, "Istanbul" by Gary Peters (with lovely scratch board illustrations and cover art by Janice Warren).

The three books I've uploaded images for are a great example of the diversity of projects coming through the Press. The Bagpipe book was designed by the author on WORD, while I manipulated his original cover concept into the final layout. My warning to authors who use Word is that it's a fickle mistress, and the conversion to PDF can produce irregularities, which then lengthens the pre-production time leading into the actual printing. The Horse Book was entirely designed by the translator, with advice from myself--this project turned around very fast; from first meeting to final printing it was no more than three weeks. I think Hodges did a smashing job. I hope she's proud of it. "Istanbul" was more of the traditional (7 months and now I can say 'tradition'? Ha!) model: I designed the interiors and cover for the author, using the images provided by his wife. This project was also rather smooth, taking about a month once I began interior layout.

We also had the pleasure of hosting Steve Almond for his latest book "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life", but it was what he wrote about in this article that brought the Espresso Book Machine into the mix. Almond essentially has self-published his book, using the EBM that our friends at the Harvard Bookstore have, and we asked Steve if he'd like copies printed out for his event here at Third Place Books. He was eager and excited, and eventually suggested that he do a presentation with Ginger (our EBM) before his actual reading. We had a nice, attentive crowd for Steve's talk; Steve said some great things about the future of publishing and writing and how the EBM fit into this Brave New World. We recorded the event, and once I have the audio cleaned up I'll post it on here.

We finally cleaned up the PDF created from a scan of one of the few remaining physical copies of "Growing Up With Lake Forest Park, Volume 2" by Barbara L. Drake Bender. The volumes (of which the 1st is still in print) were quite popular here in the northern suburbs of Seattle. We conversed with the Shoreline Historical Museum, who now owned the rights to print the book, and I spent a couple of weeks cleaning up the final PDF. Our customers and the Museum are very excited about the project.

Finally, a customer requested with print a copy of a book called "Dogs of All Nations" by W. E. Mason; it was on and therefore technically not available from the EBM. But for an extra fee, I took the existing file, cleaned it up as best I could, and created a new cover for it. Originally, it was going to be a one-off, but as I looked through the material, I realized that there were probably dog-lovers out there that would want this highly informative treat from 1915, copiously illustrated with photographs of dozens of breeds, with small descriptions of each. So we printed extra copies for the store and now proudly sits in our Pets section.

Phew! That's a summary of books coming out of the Press.

And now for books coming out from the larger publishers:

I've eased back into reading, after a nine-month dry spell (though, during that time I read "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is a beautiful, harrowing look at our eating habits--which is kind of a trend right now, yet Foer executes his book brilliantly so that all views are explored (with small essays from disparate sources--animal activist, big farming bio-chemist, sustainable farmer, to name but a few), and Foer doesn't flinch from reporting the realities of large-scale animal farming. He doesn't try to convince the reader to become a vegetarian; rather he arms you with the ability to make informed choices about alternatives to factory farming, about which Foer convincingly proves that it is the number one danger to our environment at large, even more than fossil fuel consumption.--Anyhow.) I've been reading some tremendous books lately and I wanted to share them with you.

"Hellhound on His trail" by Hampton Sides, tracks the stalking (and eventual murder) of Martin Luther King Jr. by James Earl Ray. It's amazingly written, meticulously researched, and utterly heartbreaking. Sides dispels the conspiracy myths surrounding the assassination by alternating Ray's adventures with King's mission in Memphis, at the height of the book, a grueling minute-by-minute account of both men's movements on the day of the murder made for some of the most terrifying reading I've ever experienced. Whether it was his intention or not, Sides also parallels the social and political landscape of 1968 with modern day--America in the middle of a war, hate-mongers stirring up citizens against a President that inherited a legacy of actions taken before his time, and more. If you read one non-fiction book this year, read this one.

"Extra lives: Why Video Games Matter" by Tom Bissell is an examination of video game culture, from the point of view of a gamer (himself, a self-admitted addict), and a writer (travelogue, memoir, and short story collection); each chapter looks at a different game that changed the nature of the industry. There are other door-stopper overviews of the Game Industry, but Bissell's is the most rewarding, because it attempts to convey to the lay reader what the obsession is for gamers, while also bringing a critical eye to structure, especially in the form of narratives. It's in this exploration where "Extra lives" transcends the subject and approaches deeply philosophical topics; the nature of reality, and the need in humans to experience Story. Alternately geeky and rigorously intellectual, Bissell's book contributes to the literature of technology, social-science, and narrative theory. It's the other non-fiction book you should read this year...

"How Did You Get This Number?" by Sloane Crosley, is the second collection of essays by this immensely talented and astute (and fucking funny) writer ("I Was Told There'd Be Cake" is her first book). In the Book blurbs, she's compared to many humorists, and even David Sedaris has a quote on the back. It's hard to describe Crosley's essays; they range from recalled youthful high-jinks, to a young woman trying (if a bit goofily) to assert her identity. She's smoothly self-deprecating, while at the same time being caustic like a guided missile about some of life's superficialities. She can be serious, though, and in several essays (the trip to Portugal, for one) she reveals thoughts that show a sensitivity to the world that often halts the reader in mid-laugh (that's a good thing). It's the final essay though, that really drives home Crosley's talents as a writer; profound honesty, gentle satire, and keen observation all come together to reveal her contribution to the art of letters. This is the third non-fiction book you should read this year, if...etc.

I'm currently reading "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell. I mentioned in one of my very first posts how much I admire Mitchell, and this book builds on that admiration. Set in 1799 in Nagasaki, the novel brilliantly weaves through the clash of cultures as Dutch traders carefully work with the Xenophobic Japanese; Jacobe de Zoet is an accountant, whose tenure on Dejima--and island constructed in the Nagasaki bay so that no Westerner sets foot on Japanses soil-- is a cascade of small indignities, mixed with awe at the otherworldliness of the Japanese. There's more, but I'm not finished with the book yet, and besides, you can't read it till June, and I hate to be such a tease... A full report once I'm done.

Next time, I'll talk about the Hydra, the Chorus, and the Geist. Trust me. This next post is special.