For those of you who missed it, Apple has purchased Texture. As Alex Lindsay said on MacBreak Weekly, I have long suspected Apple is positioning iBooks (reportedly to be renamed Books) to create the next generation of texts — texts sufficiently different from what we have now that we don’t have a name for them.
What follows is a longer piece that I wrote (and presented) in 2013. While some of the examples are no longer current (or no longer available — an issue that highlights a problem inherent in digital media), the overarching argument is, I think, still current and still points towards where we will eventually go.
I resisted the urge to update and significantly edit the text, other than adding some links.
Ghosts in the Machines: The Haunting of Next Generation Texts
There are spirits, if not ghosts, in these new machines. That is what has made e-books so troubling to those of us in the literati and chattering classes. They foreshadow unavoidable change.
While early adopters and technophiles have debated utility, screen resolution, and processing power, even everyday users have found themselves confronted by an issue that used to only bother a subset of Humanities scholars: What is the nature of a book? As scholars, we don't usually use the term book, of course – partially as a way of avoiding the problems raised by such a question. "The text" usefully covers a wider range of material: short stories, novellas, novels, poems, collections of poems, plays, films, essays, epistles, audiobooks, and songs. They are all texts. We enter into conversations with them. We ask our students to engage with them. Among ourselves, we agree they are elusive but, in order to get on with the business at hand, we tend to set aside the complexities unless we are trying to be clever. They are the unknown but hinted at things we, Jacob-like, wrestle with.
Such grappling has usually taken place well out of the public eye and average readers, unless they have a troublesome relative who inconveniently holds forth on such topics over Thanksgiving dinner, are quite content to get on with it and read their books.
E-books, however, are beginning to make manifest the debate. The general reading public knows what a book is and what an e-book is and recognizes that they are subtly different. If they weren't, bibliophiles would not protest that they like the feel and smell of the book as they turn its pages when explaining why they don't want a Kindle.
But there is more to this visceral reaction than just the love of cardboard, pulp, ink, and glue.
Behind the text is the thing everyone is truly after: the story. It's the Muse-spun Platonic idea grasped at by the author and glimpsed in the imagination of the reader. The text invokes it. With care, it is woven together and bound by specific words into the thing we read that transmits the story to our mind, as Steven King described in On Writing, via a kind of telepathy that ignores distance as well as time. (103-7)
Texts, then, transmit stories and the act of reading allows the mind of the readers to take them into their imaginations and there be re-visioned.
That such a process exists is something we all sense. The BBC series Sherlock receives high praise because it invokes and evokes what is essential in the original stories and recasts them in a new form and time. Sometimes the parallels are exact – the use of poison pills to murder in "A Study in Scarlet" and "A Study in Pink" – but they are played with in a manner that leaves the Sherlockian viewer of the series guessing – as in the case of the reversal of Rachel and rache as the correct interpretation of a fingernail-scratched message. Something, we sense, is importantly the same in Sherlock in a way it is not in other versions of Conan Doyle's detective – even those that are "correct" in period and dress.
At its core, this difference is the thing the general public wrestles with when they encounter e-books and will increasingly wrestle with as the thing, as yet unnamed, that will replace the book comes into being. These works make manifest old problems that have haunted books and the scholarship about them – and, perhaps, will begin to solve them. Obviously, the play's the thing in Shakespeare. What, however, is the play? The text on the page? The text when read aloud? The text that is performed? The performance itself? It is the problem Benjamin Bagby speaks of when discussing the difference between performing and reading Beowulf aloud, which feels "unnatural" to him:
[Beowulf] has become for me an aural experience.... All of those things [The techniques of performance, including music and timing.] have nothing to do with printed word. And actually, when I actually go and read it from the printed page, I am deprived of all of my tools.... That whole feeling of being trapped in the book comes back to me. And What I have found over the years being chained to the printed word. That, for me, is the crux of the matter. ("Round Table Discussion")
Bagby's role is that of a contemporary scop – a shaper of words. Much like a blacksmith is sensitive to the choices he is making about the physical properties of metal as he hammers it into a set shape, Bagby is sensitive to the limitations the printed word places on a story. In some near future, however, next generation texts will allow performance to synchronize with the printed word. The performance – or more than one performance – will be available, perhaps filmed in the round as on the Condition One app, while the text helpfully scrolls along. Commentary, definitions, or analysis to aid a reader will be a tap away.
Such texts have already begun to appear: Al Gore's Our Choice; T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land app for the iPad; Bram Stoker's Dracula HD;and The Beatles' The Yellow Submarine e-book for iBooks, to name but a few. Indeed, it is important to note that these titles include both the chronologically new (Gore) and the less new (Stoker). The possibilities of next generations texts will more fully realize the ambitions of long-dead authors.
Take, for example, Stoker's Dracula. As traditionally published, it is standard text on a standard page. Yet as anyone who has read it closely sees, that is not what is invoked by Stoker. As is made clear in the dedication, Dracula is to be imagined as a scrapbook – a confederation of texts that build a single, meta-story out of their individual narratives:
How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. ... [A]ll the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them. (xxiv)
While the text that follows is normal typeset material, he notes that each of his characters produce their textual contributions differently. For example, Harker keeps a stenographic journal in shorthand(1), as does Mina Harker, née Murray – who also types out much of the final "text." (72) Dr. Seward records his medical journal on a phonograph. (80) Additional material includes handwritten letters (81), telegrams (82), and newspaper cuttings. (101)
While the citations here may seem overcrowded, the proximity of the referenced page numbers serves to demonstrate how rapidly Stoker has the material imaginatively gathered shift within his text. While Stoker required the imagination of his reader to change the forms, the Dracula HD iPad app re-visioning of the novel makes these shifts manifest.
It is equally true that James Joyce's Ulysses, with its elusive and allusive multimedia structure, evokes similar shifts in presentation – ones that played in Joyce's imagination but are potentially kept from the reader by the limitations of the page. His successor, Samuel Beckett, likewise plays with the confluences and dissonances of multimedia presentation in works like Krapp's Last Tape – a written play that performed as a combination of live action and prerecording. Contemporary playwright Michael Harding adds video to recorded audio in his play Misogynist. And all of these are producing their work long after William Blake published a series of multimedia tours de force that were so far ahead of their time that it took generations for them to receive wide-scale recognition. Even Gildas wanted his History and Topography of Ireland to be illustrated in order to help clarify his points.
While it is impossible to know if Gildas, Blake, Stoker, Joyce, Beckett, or Harding would have crafted their works differently if our technology were then available, it is clear that contemporary content creators have begun to do so. The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, a children's text originally crafted for the iPad, is most accurately seen as a next generation confederated text. Unlike Dracula, which presents itself exclusively through the printed word, The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore is an interactive e-book, a short film, and a hardcover book that interacts with an app – each a different approach to William Joyce's imaginative children's story of a man and his love for books and the written word – rather than a single, discrete text.
William Joyce's creation is not the first next generation confederated text, of course. There have been others. The entire story of The Blair Witch Project, for example, was only partially revealed as a film. While the "missing students" marketing campaign is the best known segment of the larger confederated text, the film's website offered information that changed the meaning of what reader-viewers perceived. When the filmmaker Heather Donahue records an apology to her and her fellow filmmaker's parents, saying "It's all my fault," viewers have no way of knowing that she is a practicing neo-pagan who has been sending psychic/magical energy to the Blair Witch for years in the hopes of contacting her. For Donahue, then, her guilt is based not only in insisting that they make the film and go into the woods but possibly in literally (and ironically) empowering the evil witch she mistakenly believed to be a misunderstood, proto-feminist Wiccan. (“Journal” 4-6)
This prefiguration a unified confederated text across multiple forms of media is identical to the prefiguration of film techniques in Nineteenth Century literature noted by Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck:
We can see the same continuities in the tradition that runs from nineteenth-century novels to contemporary movies. Decades before the invention of the motion picture camera, the prose fiction of the nineteenth century began to experiment with filmic techniques. We can catch glimpses of the coming cinema in Emily Brontë's complex use of flashback, in Dickens' crosscuts between intersecting stories, and in Tolstoy's battlefield panoramas that dissolve into close-up vignettes of a single soldier. Though still bound to the printed page, storytellers were already striving towards juxtapositions that were easier to manage with images than with words. (29)
Of course, these techniques can also be found in The Odyssey and Beowulf. Nevertheless, Murray's point is unassailably correct. The imagination of the creator and, by extension, the reader or viewer, is primary and will always outstrip the technology available. The revolution, then, is not that confederated texts and the thing that will replace the book are coming but that they are becoming mainstream because they can, as a practical matter, appear on a single, portable device (an iPad) and in a unified delivery mechanism (an app or an e-book) instead of having to be viewed across multiple, non-portable devices (a movie screen or VHS played on a television and a computer screen and a book).
The collapsing of multimedia, confederated texts into a single reader experience is is a revolution that will be as transformative as the one kicked off by Gutenberg's Press. That revolution was not just about an increased availability of texts. What was more important than availability, although it is less often spoken of – assuming you discount the voices of Church historians who speak of the mass availability of the Bible and how it changed books from relics found chained in a church to something anyone could read and consider – is the change in people's relationship to the text. Their increasing presence changed them from valued symbols of status to democratizing commodities – things that could be purchased by the yard, if necessary, and that anyone could use to change and elevate themselves and the world around them.
This changing relationship, I suspect, is what lies behind people's anxieties about the loss of the experience of the book. The book – especially an old, rare, valued book like The Book of Kells– is certain, as the the Latin Vulgate was certain and some now say the King James Version is certain. Even five hundred years after Gutenberg inadvertently brought forth his revolution, Christians – Fundamentalist or not – get very uncomfortable when you talk about uncertainty of meaning in the Bible because the text; due to issues of translation, context, and time; cannot be fixed.
Despite their appearances, all books, or at least that which is bound between their covers, are uncertain. The words can and do change from edition to edition. Sometimes, these changes are due to the equivalent of scribal error, as famously happened with The Vinegar Bible. Sometimes, the changes occur due to authorial intent, as happened with the riddle game played by Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbitafter the nature of the One Ring changed as Tolkien began to write The Lord of the Rings, explaining away the change in the back story provided in the trilogy's Prologue. (22) These changes, however, happen as you move from one edition to the next. Bits and bytes can change, be changed, or disappear even after the text is fixed by "publication" – as happened, in an extreme and ironic case, to one Kindle edition of 1984. (Stone)
That former certainty of a printed, fixed object was comforting and comfortable. You can go to a particular page in a particular book and see what's there. The e-book is more fluid – pages vanish with scalable text, returning us to the days of scrolls – prone to update and possessing the possibility of existing within a hyperspace full of links. It offends our sense of the text as being a three dimensional object – something it has, in fact, never been and never will be. Whether we foreground them or not, a web of hyperlinks exist for every text.
Texts themselves are, at minimum, four-dimensional objects. It's something scholars tacitly admit when they write about the events of a story in a perpetual present tense. They exist simultaneously within time – the part of the continuum where we interact with them – and outside of it – where the stories await readers to read, listen to, and think about them.
That fluidity will go further – stretching the idea of the future text beyond the limits we currently imagine to be imposed upon it. The Monty Python: The Holy Book of Days app, which records the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, will interact with a network connected Blu-ray disk – jumping to scenes selected on the iPad. In such a case, which is the primary text: The film on DVD or the app that records its making and that is controlling the scene being watched? Indeed, the technical possibilities of an e-books and confederated texts makes the complex interplay between texts explicit rather than implicit. Tap a word, and its dictionary definition pops up. References to other texts can be tapped and the associated or alluded text is revealed, as is currently done to handle cross references in Olive Tree Software's Bibles by opening a new pane. Shifting between texts, which would benefit from a clear visual break, may eventually be marked by animation ("See: Tap here and the book rotates down – just the way it does when the map app shifts to 3D view – and the book that it alludes to appears above it! The other texts alluded to appear on the shelf behind them. Just tap the one you want to examine!"). While such a vision of the future may sound like so much eye candy, consider the benefits to scholarship and teaching to have the conversations between texts become more accessible.
Because they could be made photorealistic (Facsimile editions made for the masses, much as pulp paperbacks offered classics – alongside the penny dreadfuls – to everyone.), critical and variorum editions could bring a greater sense of the texts being compared than our current method of notation. Indeed, as The Waste Landapp shows, such scholarly apparatus can include the author's manuscripts as well as the canonical text. These can be done for significantly less than print editions. The published manuscript facsimile copy of The Waste Land is listed at $20 (almost $400 for hardcover – a bargain compared to the facsimileBook of Kells). The app, however, is $14 and includes commentary and audio and visual material – readings by Eliot and others. Likewise, the Biblion series, by the New York Public Library, is even more ambitious – especially the one focusing on Frankenstein (although a clearly identifiable copy of the novel itself is conspicuous in its absence) and is a model for what a critical e-edition of the future might look like.
These technological flourishes and innovations will be increasingly pushed not by just by designers and developers – although forthcoming flexible screen technology holds the promise of devices that could be issued, with relative safety, to schoolchildren. Changes in the market – our market – will begin to drive them. Already, iTunes U integrates with iBooks. As that platform, shared instruction via online courses, and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) begin to grow and push on the academy, innovations in pedagogy will join accessibility, design, and "value added" as factors, like the adaptive learning advertised as a part of McGraw Hill's forthcoming SmartBook offerings, going into the creation of next-generation texts.
This isn't postmodernist denial of a fixed definition of anything. Nor is it an embrasure of the Multiform Story posited by Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck as the way of the future. The story, the text, the book, and the "one more thing" that is slouching towards Cupertino to be born are all defined, concrete things. While the narratives created by a game may vary in detail (Do you turn to the Dark Side or not in the latest Star Wars video game?), the narrative skeleton – the conflict that drives the character to and through the choice towards whichever resolution – remains constant. Without such a frame, the Kingian telepathy that produces narrative and the ability of those participating in that narrative to have a shared experience with others is impossible and will remain impossible until artificial intelligence advances far enough for computers (or their descendants) to share in our storytelling. The issue arises from our desire to conflate them into a single thing. For centuries, they could be conveniently spoken of in one breath. With the e-books that will be, they can no longer conflated with the same ease.
Nor is this merely prognosticating a future that is already here. Criticism necessarily follows created content – wherever that content might lead. While paper may have cachet for some time to come, it is inherently limiting. This article, for example, incorporates a still image. An iBook version might include moving images, sound, and hyperlinks to other texts, additional material in an iTunes U class, and other apps. In fairness to paper, it would also be harder to read in brightly lit settings and impossible to read after the battery ran down.
The core reason, amidst these changes, things will remain the same is that – with the possible exception of the postmodernists – what motivates us to explore the issues inherent in the texts before us are the stories they convey. Whatever the medium, be it papyri, pulp, or LED, the story rivets us and invites us to immerse ourselves in it – perhaps to the point of trying to learn the mechanics behind the curtain that keep us spellbound.
What we as scholars do, then, will have to adjust. Our mainstream critical apparatus, and the frame of our discipline, is inadequate for the coming task. Dracula HD may provide a greater sense of verisimilitude than a traditional novel, but this push for verisimilitude has meant liberties were taken with the text – small additions and deletions that make it slightly different from the canonical novel. The text of an iBook edition of Dracula may be canonical but it's also scalable, making page references meaningless.
We will also have to learn how to talk about confederated texts. Some techniques will come from what is still the relatively new – the language of film criticism, for example. Other moves will come from reincorporating into mainstream criticism what everyone once knew – the language of the Medievalist who have to discuss manuscripts and the art historians who still work with the way the image influences the viewer.
And then, there are the things we do not yet see and will require entirely new modes of thought and reflection. We study narrative and storytelling as a part of our discipline. With the increase of computing power, the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" book format is growing up quickly, forming a new genre of literature, or something like literature – a concept posited in Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck over a decade ago. Will we be the ones to address how narrative flows in the twilight world between books and games? What will we have to do differently when we are dealing with stories whose outcomes become different with different readers not because of their responses to a fixed text – the reactions Byron feared when he sent his works out into the world – but because they cooperate with the characters and creators in fashioning the story itself? Or should we, as Murray posits in "Inventing the Medium," surrender these creations to a new field – New Media Studies in a Department of Digital Media – and go the way of the Classics Departments that many of us have watched shuttered or be absorbed into our own Departments.
And if we exclude such forms of storytelling, how are we then choosing to self-define our profession? Are we content to surrender the keys to our garden up to the publishing houses of the world – whether they be great or small? Is it the static nature of the text – the printed word bound between two covers – what we claim to value? If so, how do we continue to justify researching the manuscripts of writers? Who do we ask what is the canonical version of any work that saw editorial revision over its life – whether those changes were overseen by editors, literary executors, or the artists themselves?
The interactivity made possible by the iPad not only challenges the definition of the objects we study, it challenges our assumptions about where the borders of our form of study lie. We no longer exclusively "cough in ink" as we imagine our Catullus. (Yeats 154, 7)
As first steps to this re-imagining of our discipline, we should consider the nuts and bolts of how we talk rather than of what we talk about. How, for example, do you properly cite a passage in an e-book in a manner that does not lead to confusion? Do you make it up as you go along, as I did for the sake of an example, with my reference to Yeats' "The Scholars" (poem number, line number)? Should you list only the year of release for iPad Apps – essentially treating them as books – or, given the ability to update them, should we list the month and day as well? Will we need to do the same with books, given that these, too, can now be updated?
While search tools and hyperlinks (or their descendants) may render some concerns moot, they will not fully resolve the issues until our journals become e-books or confederate themselves with the texts they examine. Even in these cases, however, they may not eliminate all of them. "Which 'Not at all' in The Waste Land," a future reader might find himself asking a scholar, "did you want me to weigh again?" And while that scholar has the ability to reference line numbers, those working with fiction and many kinds of drama will not. Such a process should not, however, be seen as an exercise in pedantry. How we choose to record our sources and cite them is not just a roadmap for those who follow what we write. It marks what we consider essential information – what we value in our sources. It will help us to get a greater sense of what we wish to preserve and enhance in next generation texts, much as Andrew Piper's Book Was There attempts to assay what it is we value in the book through an almost free-associative exploration of the words and metaphors that surround and support the book.
Even more challenging shift will be in our most fundamental relationship to the text which, until now, we currently imagine as a private experience. While we may currently hold conversations with the text within our minds, the text itself remains a static thing – a fixed object that we react to. In essence, the conversation is one way. The adaptive textbooks being developed by the major textbook publishers will make that interaction two ways. In short, the book will read us as we read it. While this may be a boon for learning, it is not an unalloyed boon. Because they reside on a device that is always connected, the books can communicate what is learns of us to its publisher and its marketing partners. Or a government. While such arrangements can bring us greater convenience and security, they do so a the cost. And while I acknowledge that there is a loss of a kind of privacy, we should not forget that targeted advertising is nothing new. Remington Arms is not going to place its advertisements in Bon Appetite. Likewise, Amazon's recommendations are not so far removed from the book catalogues found in the back of Victorian novels. Indeed, William Caxton, the first English printer, made sure to mention his backer's high opinions in his prefaces – as he did in his second printing of The Canterbury Tales – and advertised his publications in hopes of driving sales. So the practice of using ads and reader reviews of one book that you like to try to sell the next has been with us for a very long time.
And yet, Big Data gives the appearance of a violation of privacy. While we may like the efficiency offered by such techniques (e.g., getting coupons for the things we want rather than things we don't), we prefer not to think about the mountain of data being compiled about each and every one of us every day of our lives. Nor do we like to think of our books coming to us as a part of a business, although the major publishing houses are nothing if not businesses – businesses desperate to know what we want to read so that they can sell us more of the same. That they can now use our books to mine for information feels like it is crossing a new line – even if it is not. After all, how many of us have willingly participated in an offer that gave us access to coupons based on the number of books we bought at a store – one that assigned us a traceable number? Bought a book online from Amazon or Barnes and Noble? Or became a regular enough customer that a small, independent bookstore owner or friendly staffer could recommend books that we might like? Because the last of these involves actual human contact, it is more intimately associated with us as individuals than the algorithm-generated, aggregation-based results of an Amazon. But we are not yet ready to embrace a trust of the machine and whatever sinister, calculating faceless figure we imagine to be controlling it.
In short, we may want texts that in some way touch us. At the same time, we want to read the text but we do not want it to read us. We want to find book but not let those same book be used to locate us. We wish to classify a text by genre but not let it place us into a category. We are willing to give ourselves to a book -- to lose ourselves so deeply in it that we cease to be -- but we do not want it to give us away.
We want all the advantages of our love affair with reading to remain without giving the innermost, anonymous part of ourself away.
We don't want books betray the secrets we offer them.
And given the company these next generation texts keep, perhaps there is cause for fearing such betrayal. Goodreads is now owned by Amazon and spends too much time talking to Facebook -- and it deals primarily with traditional texts. But, ultimately, we will control how much we let these texts tell others about us. It will be up to us to check out applications' settings.
These next generation texts will not change the core of what we study – although they may challenge many of the assumptions underlying the critical approaches we use when coming to a text. They will also ask us to consider revising what we consider a "legitimate" text and "legitimate" means of publication – a distinction those approaching tenure in a shrinking publication market must face with a certain anxiety. Yet, stories have always resisted these when they are used too narrowly or exclusively. As such, our frustrations and fears may tell us more about ourselves than the stories we purport to be concerned with. In that regard, next generation texts may be the best thing that has happened to our profession in some time. They will force us to confront what our purpose is by making us figure out exactly what it is that we are studying and why we choose to study it.
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Biblion: Frankenstein: The Afterlife of Shelley's Circle. The New York Public Library 2012. iPad App.
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——, "Inventing the Medium," The New Media Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2003.
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