What Is Needed

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Copyright © 2012 by John D. Berry
Originally posted at johndberry.com

Books are digital. This is not, strictly speaking, true; but it’s about to be, with a few honorable exceptions. Already today, pretty much all commercial books are produced digitally, although the end product is a physical one: ink printed on paper, then bound and marketed and sold. Already, the selling may be done as often online as in a bookstore. Already, the same books are being issued more and more in electronic form—even if, as yet, the e-books are mostly very shoddy in conception and execution.

But that will change. In order for it to change in a worthwhile way, we have to spell out just what form these books ought to take.

So what’s needed? How do we make good e-books? What should a good tool for designing and creating e-books look like and do? What should the result—the e-book itself—be capable of? And what should the experience of reading an e-book be like?

Last question first. If it’s immersive reading—a story or narrative of some kind—then you, as the reader, should be able to lose yourself in the book without thinking about what it looks like or how it’s presented. This has always been true for printed books, and it’s equally true for e-books.

But e-books present a challenge that printed books do not: the page isn’t fixed and final. At the very least, the reader will be able to make the font bigger or smaller at will, which forces text to reflow and the relative size of the screen “page” to change. That’s the minimum, and it’s a fair bet already today. But the reader many read the same book on several different devices: a phone, a laptop, a tablet, a specialized e-reader, or even the screen of a desktop computer.

For a real system of flexible layout in e-books and e-periodicals that might be viewed on any number of different screens at different times, what’s needed is a rules-based system of adaptive layout. I like to think of this as “page H&J”: the same kind of rules-based decision-making on how to arrange the elements on a page as normal H&J uses to determine line endings.

The requirements for this are easy to describe—maybe not so easy to implement. We need both design & production tools and the reading software & hardware that the result will be displayed on.

A constraints-based system of adaptive layout

The interesting problems always come when you have two requirements that can’t both be met at the same time. (For example: this picture is supposed to stay next to that column of text, but the screen is so small that there isn’t room for both. What to do?) That’s when you need a well-thought-out hierarchy of rules to tell the system which requirement takes precedence. It can get quite complicated. And the rules might be quite different for, say, a novel, a textbook on statistics, or an illustrated travel guide.

OpenType layout support. This means support for the OpenType features that are built into fonts. There are quite a few possible features, and you might not think of them as “layout”; they affect the layout, of course, in small ways (what John Hudson has called “character-level layout”), but they’re basically typographic. Common OpenType layout features include different styles of numerals (lining or oldstyle, tabular or proportional), kerning, tracking, ligatures, small-caps, contextual alternates, and the infinitely malleable “stylistic sets.” In complex scripts like Arabic, Thai, or Devanagari, there are OpenType features that are essential to composing the characters correctly. None of these features are things that a reader has to think about, or ought to, but the book designer should be able to program them into the book so that they’re used automatically.

Grid-based layout. It seems very obvious that the layout grid, which was developed as a tool for designing printed books, is the logical way to think about a computer screen. But it hasn’t been used as much as you’d imagine. Now that we’re designing for screens of varying sizes and shapes, using a grid as the basis of positioning elements on the screen makes it possible to position them appropriately on different screens. The grid units need to be small enough and flexible enough to use with small text type, where slight adjustments of position make a world of difference in readability.

Media query. This is the name used for the question that a program sends to the device: What kind of device are you? What is the resolution of your screen? How big is that screen? What kind of rendering system does it use for text? With that information, the program can decide how to lay out the page for that screen. (Of course, the device has to give back an accurate answer.)

Keep & break controls. These are rules for determining what elements have to stay together and what elements can be broken apart, as the page is laid out. This means being able to insist that, say, a subhead must stay with the following paragraph on the page (keep); if there isn’t room, then they’ll both get moved to the next page. It also means that you could specify that it’s OK to break that paragraph at the bottom of the page (break), as long as at least two lines stay with the subhead.

Element query. I’ve made up this term, but it’s equivalent to media query on a page level. The various elements that interact on a page—paragraphs, columns, images, headings, notes, captions, whatever—need a way of knowing what other elements are on the page, and what constraints govern them.

H&J. That stands for “hyphenation and justification,” which is what a typesetting program does to determine where to put the break at the end of a line, and whether and how to hyphenate any incomplete words. Without hyphenation, you can’t have justified margins (well, you can, but the text will be hard to read, because it will be full of gaping holes between words—or, even more distracting, extra spaces between letters). Even unjustified text needs hyphenation some of the time, though it’s more forgiving. When a reader increases the size of the font, it effectively makes the lines shorter; if the text is justified, those gaps will get bigger and more frequent. But there are rules for deciding where and how to break the line, and a proper H&J system (such as the one built into InDesign) is quite sophisticated. That’s exactly what we need built into e-book readers.

In digital typesetting systems, the rules of H&J determine which words should be included on a line, which words should be run down to the next line, and whether it’s OK to break a word at the end of the line – and if so, where. A system like InDesign’s paragraph composer can do this in the context of the whole paragraph, not just that one line. A human typesetter makes these decisions while composing the page, but when the font or size might be changed at any moment by the reader, these decisions need to be built into the software. In “page H&J,” where the size and orientation of the page itself might change, the whole process of page layout needs to be intelligent and flexible.

Up until now, in the digital work flow, the software’s composition engine has been used in the creation of the published document; the human reader is reading a static page. But now, with flexible layout and multiple reading devices, the composition engine needs to be built into the reading device, because that’s where the final page composition is going to take place.

It’s easy to create a document with static pages that are designed specifically for a particular output device—a Kindle 3, for instance, with its 6-inch E Ink screen, or a 10-inch iPad. I’ve done it myself in InDesign and turned the result into a targeted PDF. But if that’s your model, and you want to target more than one device, you’ll have to produce a new set of static pages for each different screen size and each different device. Wouldn’t it be better to have a flexible system for intelligently and elegantly adapting to the size, resolution, and rendering methods of any device at all?

Photo: a 17th-century Mexican handbook, about the size of a hand-held device, from the collection of the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, displayed during Typ09 in Mexico City. With ink show-through from the back of the page, which will probably not be a feature of e-books.

Emphasized Declarations

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The First of Many Frankencorpses

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The Frankenstein Exquisite Corpse began with this passage from Frankenstein:

“I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me.”

In 1934, an edition was published with this woodcut by Lynd Ward illustrating the paragraph.

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I sent the image, without any information about its original context (and strict instructions not to google it), to Yoz Grahame who answered a call for a writer on Twitter.

His reaction was this text:

I reach for support and find velvet under the rubble. I look up at more velvet, towering wings bathed in candlelight, going up and up and up to the bombed-out ceiling; then sky, stars, flashes of the battle.

“It’s too late for new, Mara!” She’s on the stage, capering around the candles. She bends to add another mark, then straightens up. Straight arms, straight teeth, eyes ready to pop. “It’s time to try some old.” The chalk tumbles from her fingers but I don’t watch it land: I’m looking at the curtains, because that can’t just be candlelight, and then the claws appear.

This text was then sent to the artist Sara Hames, who responded with this image:

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The image was then sent to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where five people were given the chance to describe the image in a creative manner. They were paid $1 each, and spent an average of two minutes, 15 seconds on their responses. Although this is higher than most Turk rates, only three people attempted it in the first two hours.

I have no idea who or where they are except for their anonymized IDs.

Worker A1GKEEI844CEKI:

The face of a Dead woman covered in her shroud that will be with her for all time. She will be buried with this and this will be the last image of her ever made.

Worker A21YQXPL0SNNR2:

Travelling too far out of the intricacies of universe, space, and even time itself can lead you to a middle age woman who controls everything that happens in the universe.

Worker AOPG07J95DDJT:

She spoke lies to me, I sensed this, but I could not hear them. Yet I could see it somehow, the bottom of her face melting away into what appeared to be a sculpture of silver, bone-like wire and fleshy triangular patterns. None of it made sense; the silver giving way to buried treasures and diamonds, colors flowing off into the distance… I wondered, as I watched her, if this spoke her true desires, wealth and freedom and pleasure beyond compare. But all I could see, all that stood before me, was a monstrously beautiful mystery.

This was the first forking event we defined, currently containing three possible new paths, though many others could also be started based on the above creations. By maintaining their connection to the original Frankenstein, perhaps in the digital margins of the e-book, and updating them continuously, we could trace the ripples created by the source material’s ideas. This kind of book consciously embraces its descendants.

Writers and Readers of the New Digital Economy, Unite!

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Imagine this scenario: The Tweetosphere suddenly goes silent. The New York Times reports that erstwhile tweeters have declared a universal boycott of the social network. Jobs are disappearing, courtesy of technologies like theirs, while revenues soar. But Twitter isn’t sharing that windfall with its content creators, who argue that they are at the heart of its success. Sure, the network dangles the potential for social capital, which can be very nice, but there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Perhaps they’ve read Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future (2013) (the provocative book that inspired this thought experiment) and have realized that, if things continue as they are, it sure won’t be them. The only topic trending now is mute outrage, and it’s earsplitting. There’s just the lone tweet of a Twitter employee as she’s handed her pink slip: “WTF?! #We’reAllF*cked”

What is Twitter without tweeters? The same as any network without content: Useless. Bankrupt. (The irony that a universal boycott of Twitter could not be tweeted and would thereby render a universal boycott of Twitter nigh impossible is not lost on me. But stay with this….)

Now imagine that Twitter isn’t the only target of the boycotters’ wrath. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Tumblr are next. Soon all who participate in online “conversations” demand pay for their contributions—videos, music, comments, reviews, blog entries—and for the time spent creating them. The whole Internet, that great network and aggregator of networks, is on trial, and save for the bots who continue to generate derivative filler, and the odd contribution from employees of Amazon, Google, and their ilk, the whole thing goes static.

Network contributors, nay workers, are as mad as hell, and they’re not gonna…well, you know. They’re fed up with going hungry as the networks they feed employ alarmingly fewer people and grow ever more fat. At the core of their gripe is that these “free” online services are not boons for users, as they assure users, so much as they are boons for themselves. And it’s not only user content that’s free for them—it’s also user data, a commodity far more precious.

With so much money flowing toward those closest to these “Siren Servers” as Lanier calls them, and away from the middle class, something must give. For a digital economy to be viable and sustainable, a new paradigm is needed. In the above scenario, content creators are hellbent on being a the center of it. This is no socialist revolution. It’s an intensely capitalist one. Participants make networks valuable. Why, then, don’t they get paid?

The fact is Twitter is not “free.” Neither is Facebook or any other social network—or, for that matter, any online experience in which we, the participants, freely offer content and invaluable information about ourselves for others to use or sell as they will. Sure, it may seem that we’re the beneficiaries of largesse, and many wax utopian about the virtues of a world in which free content means cheaper living and return to a universal barter system, which means we won’t need much money at all. (I’ve spoken to a number of well-educated millennials aligned with the Free Culture Movement who actually believe this. I love their idealism but question what’s in their water.)

Others opine about the social capital made possible by networks like Twitter and how that can be parlayed into wealth. “I’ll plug my wares for free on social networks for free, millions will buy, and I’ll soon be rich.” And still others, followers of The Singularity with Mosaic tablets bearing Moore’s Law, proclaim that the exponential progress of technology will create unlimited wealth by the 2040s, so that in a few decades, we’ll all be rich (not to mention immortal)!

As Lanier keenly observes, we need a reality check. In a digital economy, “free” means participating blithely, thinking how lucky we are to live in such an age, as the Siren Servers, and those closest to them, co-opt our economic future.

But back to our thought experiment: What might it imply for the economy of writing and reading future books in a digitized world? A tweet is, after all, a byte-sized text generated by an author (or authors) who seeks an audience for her “work.” And followers of tweeters are readers who seek out these texts, engage with them and comment, carrying the conversation forward. Will future “books,” no matter what they look like or what what they’re called, really be so much different?

We talk about the “works” of authors and sometimes the “work” associated with reading and processing a great, challenging novel. Both require a great deal of attention and are a kind of work. Does posting a book review on Amazon or engaging in a book discussion on Goodreads constitute “work”? Why not, if these networks would be nothing without such content?

We English majors dream of being paid for doing what we love, but very few of us actually live that dream, and those who do are hampered by academic pressures like securing tenure or the economic pressures of a market that treats novels more like commodities than art.

What if there were a digital, network-based ecosystem that truly supported communities of readers and writers so that the telling of stories and interactions around them could flourish without its participants going broke? Compensation could come in the form of micro-payments from the host network, a top-down approach, but assessing the value of that content would be an emergent phenomenon, based on algorithms that factor in the community’s attention to and merit-rating of each contribution.

There are plenty of scary, dystopian implications here, but it’s easy to see how such an ecosystem could spur creativity and innovation in future books. And I, for one, might just tear myself away from the printed page and give up my privacy for a chance to get paid for doing something I love.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock, all rights reserved

Recessional: Different Tools for Different Jobs

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We’ve been talking about “books” without always being clear about what a book is. There are different kinds of books, intended for different purposes. We use a novel or a biography very differently from the way we use a dictionary, for instance. As a book designer, I’m used to thinking about this when designing a book: the optimum typography for a reference work may be quite different from the best typographic treatment of continuous text that we want to immerse ourselves in. A cookbook or a technical manual needs to impart discrete nuggets of information quickly and clearly, and to make it obvious what the relationship of those nuggets is to each other. An encyclopedia has to present an enormous trove of information in ways that you can dip into and locate the part that you’re looking for, and make the bit that you’re reading easy to absorb. A book that’s telling a story usually runs in a single direction, from start to finish; the typography ought to invite the reader into the page and then get out of the way, letting the author’s words go straight into the reader’s mind.

When we talk about the future of reading, and the future of books, we have to realize that this is a multifarious future: we’ll be reading one kind of book differently from the way we read another one, and what’s appropriate for one kind of reading isn’t appropriate for another.

As so often, in so many areas, there’s no one answer. We’ll need different tools for different jobs.

Raids!

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I will admit, I am largely ignorant about gaming. I am not wholly ignorant…I have my intermittent addictions to casual iPhone games. I helped to advise a design thesis on gaming IRL (“in real life” for you other non-gamers). I think that captures just how far from a gamer I am. Part of the problem is that I get really sucked into the activity on the screen, enough so that my vestibular system is terribly confused and it looks like I’m moving when my body says I’m not. In short, I like games, but they make me want to throw up.

Recently, I have become really interested in a phenomenon I’m told happens in World of Warcraft, or WOW, as I’m told the more clued-in members of society call it. This is the phenomenon of raids.

I actually have never seen a raid. I’m not terribly curious to see one. What I love is to ask gamers about raiding, because raiders get very excited. Raids, it’s been related to me, occur when bands of players gather to take on a quest or a boss character. It takes social coordination, strategy, and patience to pull off a raid. In a raid, players need to forget themselves a little and dedicate themselves to some larger purpose. Raids are for people who can see the big picture. Raids are for people who really understand the world and their place in it, and that understand WOW is not just a game, but a parable for life and its challenges and how if you band together you can conquer anything. Or so I’ve been told.

I love hearing about raids in part because I am so much the solitary bookish nerd that I can hardly relate to the frenzied excitement gamers apparently feel for raiding. As I watch them gesticulating and feinting, reenacting their last raid in their retelling, I wonder what in my life would be raid-like. What would a literary raid be? Would we all take up our pitchforks and arrows and demand our favorite authors hurry up and write their latest magnum opus already? Would we all quest to translate obscure literary texts? Is a book club in any way raid-like?

Ah, I’m sitting next to Kiyash, and across from Lee. Let us consult the wisemen: “People need specific tasks and roles,” says Kiyash. Maybe you make a story appear in distributed books and pieces and people have to get together to reconstitute the story. Now Lee is involved: there’s something like this in William Gibson’s Agrippa (1992). Needs to be time constrained. Can’t be persistent. Maybe the bits and pieces need to appeal to different kinds of people with different skills so that you really need lots of people to put it together.

I think what I love about reading is in many ways that it is a quiet, solitary, cloistered activity. It is focused. It is contemplative. It is individualistic. It is personal. Reading occurs at a scale that is as large as my mind, and just as small. It might be the antithesis of the raid, with all its hurly-burly simultaneous collective action. Trying to think of a raid of readers takes me back to my grad school days at MIT. I would take the Red Line from Harvard Square to Kendall, a short two hops. On the platform, on the train, nerds everywhere. I read a research paper. You had the news. That lady there has a well-worn paperback. You could look up and down the cars and everyone would have their nose in a book. Often people couldn’t be bothered to stop reading even when they got to their stop and had to step off, make their way to the turnstile, go up the stairs. We were together, underground, moving in concert, going to the same place. And still. Still. Still. The thing that bound us was that we all had trouble stopping reading.

Frankenstein’s Thousand Exquisite Corpses

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It begins with space. There is space to draw. That’s the most important feature.

The margin opens up into white space whenever you call on it. You can fill that space however you want. Sketches, scribblings, notes, doodles.

The book collects them, tags them to the places in the text that inspired them, and keeps them. Every time someone reads it, the collection grows deeper and broader.

For example, this passage has been illustrated five thousand times:

I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature, also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man.

This one has been illustrated only three times, but still:

I was partly urged by curiosity, and compassion confirmed my resolution.

It is possible to walk from sentence to sentence, from one end of Frankenstein to the other, stepping only on the images the text has inspired, without touching a single word. There are actually many such paths.

With each new reader, the text is growing and changing. Over time, these small additions—a stick-figure sketch here, a note there—accrue into a living record of the audience and their shifting perceptions of the story, the themes, the characters. You can view these illuminations alongside the text, or inline, or alone. You can plot them chronologically, or by subject. You can look at one scene a thousand ways. You can add to any image, recombine them in different sequences, create something wholly new from them.

This has led to all kinds of unexpected permutations of reading. Conversations are taking place in the margins. A phrase becomes an image, that image begets a new caption, and that caption leads to yet another image. All of these connections are preserved.

For many people, reading Frankenstein has become a game. There are no set rules, or rather, there is no single set of them. There are thousands of rules, thousands of variations. Some are written down, but many more are not. Folk games bubble up for a season, then disappear. A hundred pictures, each drawn in a different hand, showing only the monster’s nose, inexplicably appear on a single day, all originating from a town in southern England. Closer investigation reveals that the tenth graders of the local secondary school were reading Frankenstein at the time, but no one remembers exactly why all the noses got drawn.

There are many such exquisite corpses strewn across the landscape of the book.

Phrases from the text are starting to crop up in unexpected places in popular culture. When they do, they are tagged and added back into the text. The document becomes a magnet that attracts its derivations back to it, and re-enfolds them. A character in a popular television show quotes the first line of Chapter Five. A Top 40 song references Henry Clerval. Mary Shelley herself becomes a sort of cult heroine. Her face appears on t-shirts, tattoos. She and her creation are macro’d and memed in ways that make some Romantic scholars cringe. But the truth of this spreading, viral text is undeniable, and even the most stoic of academics celebrate it with a smirk: the text is alive. It’s alive.

Prose-to-Poetry Game

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Are words the same as meaning? Does the form in which you are writing influence the content of what you write? Here’s a game that explores the way form and word choice might influence meaning. For one or many players. Join in!

Rules of the Game:

  • Rewrite a sentence or passage from the Declaration of Independence into a series of linked 17-syllable verses that, like haiku, follow a 5-7-5 sequence of syllables to the line.
  • The text of the Declaration: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html
  • Try to stay close to the original meaning, but be open to re-interpretation, if the new form requires it.
  • Must reference nature and the seasons
  • Less is more
  • Stop when you have written an ending
  • Translate what you have written back into more straightforward prose
  • Post the poem, the prose translation, and the original passage, in that order.

 

The poem:

In the bright summer

Of human events

We dissolve our connections

 

Turn cold our eyes to

Take a place at the wellspring

Of power on Earth

 

We respect others

Enough to clothe our action

In modest Nature

 

Don’t argue with us

We are as good as you are

God tells us this. Splash!

 

 The poem, restored to prose:

Now, in the harsh, dry reckoning of human events, we dissolve the bonds that have heretofore tied us to others and, eschewing subservience toward those from whom we have split, sit with them at the spot from which power emerges and men seize it. Out of respect to those with whom we are now competing, rather than serving, we assert that there is a higher law to which we conform, and a Deity who has given us the same rights that they claim.

The original text:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Competitive Annotation, and Bullwinkle

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Thinking about how to bring more fun into reading, two thoughts:

First, dramatic readings: This isn’t a new idea. Hollywood actors did it nicely a few years ago:

And the professional speakers at National Public Radio did this exercise several years ago as well, with different reporters speaking different sections.

I find myself wondering how Bullwinkle might have rendered it…

Second, annotation. This feels more like work than play:

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We could make it current, not historical:

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But I’m wondering if we could turn it into more of a sport.

What if we highlighted key phrases and words, and asked people to annotate or identify historical connections in competition with each other. I’m not sure what it would look like…working on a mock-up now.

The Algorithmic Corpse

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One of my favorite classroom assignments is to ask students to write original fiction or poetry using words and phrases plucked from Google Autocomplete. Inspired by Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing (2011), the challenge requires them to use some kind of seed phrase (“how do I,” for example) and then add on words to get new language for their reuse. To give this constraint a little flexibility, I also allow students to elide the seed phrase and pluck other keywords out of the resulting text if they wish.

I’d like to think this is a kind of exquisite corpse where the collaboration happens between millions of strangers, most of whom have no idea they are playing the game. The result is powerful precisely because of this distributed network of textual ghosts: people who typed in phrases (often profound, or bizarre, or deeply sad) thousands or millions of times. The exquisite corpse that emerges is both improvisational and thoroughly grounded in a particular intentionality and history.

Consider this example, starting with the keyword “exquisite”:

Exquisite blood surf

Exquisitely tender

Infernal black diamond necklace

Synonyms and antonyms

Exquisite corpse why lie

This corpse is the artistic creation of one individual (breaking the cardinal rule of the game), but it is also a kind of collage that involves millions. The search bar is a vital interface between the collective id and the articulated consciousness of the Internet. It is a confessional and a space for interrogatory dialog. When we adapt the distinctively clipped, quasi-boolean voice of the search query to the ends of poetry, we get something that is perversely beautiful and multivalent. Each phrase drags along its own string of corpses behind it, the trial of inquiry and speculation that leads people to ask Google questions like how do you have sex.

I don’t know quite what game I’m playing here, or how this could become a multiplayer game like the real exquisite corpse. One variation might be to tell a story starting with a letter of the alphabet, using that letter to find an autocomplete phrase to add to the narrative. How else might we build this monster?

Hemingway’s Declaration

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Hemingway is a text editor, created by Adam and Ben Long, inspired by the spare writing style of Ernest Hemingway. It analyzes the length and complexity of your sentences. It indicates how frequently you use adverbs and passive constructions.

Here’s a fun game you can play with Hemingway. Take a text, preferably a well-known text, and try to incrementally reduce its grade level. You can play the game on your own or in competition with others.

I’ve just played the game with a paragraph drawn from the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Hemingway dislikes this paragraph. Hemingway regards it as “Bad.”

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As we can see, this paragraph of the Declaration reads at a Grade Level of 30. Four of its five sentences are Very Hard to Read. It uses more than zero adverbs. We are informed that two words or phrases could be simplified. The passive voice is used six times. We should aim for one or fewer passive sentences.

Step one of the game: Let’s get rid of these “errors” and see what we’re left with. We’ll need to do some reconstructive surgery on the original paragraph. How does this sound?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that God creates all men equal. Their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights. Among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. To secure these rights, Men institute Governments. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it. They can institute new a Government. People should make a new Government that seems most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence dictates that Governments long established should not change for light and transient causes. Experience has shown, that mankind would rather suffer than to abolish governments. But when enough abuses and usurpations pile up, people have a right and duty to overthrow the Government. They should provide new Guards for their future security. This has been the situation of these Colonies. And now it’s necessary to alter our system of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations. These injuries and usurpations aim to establish an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, we submit Facts to a candid world.

Now we have a text that Hemingway regards as “Good.” It’s at a Grade 9 reading level. So we’re making progress. Unfortunately, most Americans read at a 7th or 8th Grade Reading Level. So we’ll have to go through another round of editing. Let’s see how low we can get the reading level without losing the sense of the original text.

Here goes our paragraph from the Declaration at a 4th Grade Level:

We think God creates all men equal. God gives us some Rights. They are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. We make Governments to keep these rights. We give governments permission to rule. When governments become bad, people can fix or end it. They make new Governments. Good governments make us safe and happy. We shouldn’t end governments for small reasons. Most people would rather suffer than end bad governments. But when governments get bad enough, people should fix or end them. They should make sure that governments can’t be bad. This is our problem. We have to switch our Government. The King of Great Britain is a bad man. He’s a tyrant. We will prove it.

We’re getting there. But I think we can do better. Let’s try to get to Grade 0.

God makes us equal. God gives us Rights. They are Life, Liberty and Happiness. Rulers help us. We pick rulers. Some rulers are bad. We stop bad rulers. We pick good rulers. Good rulers make us safe and happy. Be careful when you pick a ruler. We do not like to get new rulers. But when rulers get bad, we get new rulers. We make sure rulers can’t be bad. This is our problem. We have to switch rulers. The King of Great Britain is a bad man. He’s a tyrant. We will prove it.

That’s the end of the game for me. If you’re playing with someone else, compare your Grade 0 rewriting to that of your opponent. Whoever best retains the sense of the original wins.

Let’s call this game Hemingway’s Declaration.

You Are Playing the Game

By Rick&Brenda Beerhorst, // ccby2.0
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By Rick&Brenda Beerhorst, // ccby2.0

By Rick & Brenda Beerhorst, // ccby2.0

Click here. Play the Frankengame.

Report your points total in the comments.

The next stages could include:

• Automatically pull out short sentences from a text

• Assign difficulty ratings according to their readability score

• Play with your favorite books

• Have everyone at a dinner/party agree to play the game.  People can call each other out at any time for saying what others think is their book phrase. If you’re right, you get 5 points and they have to get a new phrase. If you’re wrong, they get 10 points. See how that changes people’s conversation patterns.

• What else?

Not Satisfied With the Blood Remain Friends: The Frankenstein Translation Game

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Today we consider reading as a game. Actually, I don’t consider reading to be a game, but perhaps the most serious thing around. At least the most serious way to impart and take in information. Nevertheless I can easily immerse myself into the game of “Translation Wars,” where we take something memorable and make it unintelligible. Move from one language to the next and on to the next using the wonderful bait-and-switch of automated Internet translation. Like that age-old game of Telephone, where we whispered into the ear of a friend and they whispered to another and then onto another, now we let the machine do the talking. And let’s see just what corner it talks itself into….

On the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s first visit to Castle Frankenstein, let’s see what the Wizard of Internet does with the famous encounter between the good Doctor and his Creature, traveling through one language to the next and then to the next and eventually back to the English in which we began.

Robert Cametti Frankenstein Heads art project for St. Jude's Charity

Original:

“Devil,” I exclaimed, “do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!”

“I expected this reception,” said the daemon. “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.”

French:

“Diable”, m’écriai-je, “avez-vous osé s’approcher de moi? Et ne craignez-vous pas la vengeance féroce de mon bras semé sur votre misérable tête? Va-t’en, insecte vil! Ou plutôt, séjour, afin que je puisse vous piétiner dans la poussière! Et , oh! que je pouvais, avec l’extinction de votre existence misérable, restaurer ces victimes que vous avez si diaboliquement assassinés! ”

“Je m’attendais à cette réception”, a déclaré le démon. “Tous les hommes détestent les misérables; alors, comment dois-je détestais, qui suis misérable au-delà tous les êtres vivants Pourtant, vous, mon créateur, détestent et méprisent moi, ta créature, à qui tu es lié par des liens que dissoluble par l’anéantissement! l’un de nous. vous but de me tuer. Comment osez-vous le sport ainsi avec la vie? Faites votre devoir envers moi, et je vais faire le mien vers vous et le reste de l’humanité. Si vous vous engagez à respecter mes conditions, je vais les laisser et vous en paix;. mais si vous refusez, je vais assouvir la gueule de la mort, jusqu’à ce qu’il soit rassasié avec le sang de vos amis qui restent ”

German:

“Devil “, rief ich , ” kannst du es wagen mich zu nähern ? Und glauben Sie nicht den harten Rache meinen Arm auf Ihrem elenden Kopf gepflanzt fürchten? Begone , abscheuliche Insekten ! Oder eher , Wohnzimmer, so kann ich Ihnen in den Staub trampeln ! Und, oh , ich könnte , mit dem Erlöschen des kümmerliches Dasein , Wiederherstellung dieser Opfer den du so teuflisch ermordet zu haben ! ”

“Ich erwartete diesen Empfang “, sagte der Dämon. “Alle Menschen hassen die elenden , also wie soll ich hasste , der elend jenseits aller Lebewesen bin Doch du, mein Schöpfer, verabscheue und verachte mich , dein Geschöpf , dem du bist durch die Bande gebunden , dass auflösbar durch Vernichtung ! einer von uns. ihr mich zu töten . Wie können Sie es wagen und den Sport mit Leben? tun Sie Ihre Pflicht auf mich zu, und ich werde mir auf Sie und den Rest der Menschheit zu tun . Wenn Sie einverstanden, dass meine Begriffe , werde ich euch und Friede lassen . , aber wenn Sie sich weigern , werde ich die Klauen des Todes zu stillen , bis es mit dem Blut von deinen Freunden zufrieden ist bleiben ”

Russian:

” Дьявол “, я воскликнул: ” Вы смеете подходить ? И не верьте суровую месть мою руку посадили на вашем несчастной головы страха? Прочь , отвратительные насекомые ! Вернее , в гостиной , чтобы я мог растоптать в пыль ! И, о , я мог , что вы убили так дьявольски с вымиранием жалкое существование , восстановить эти жертвы ! ”

“Я ожидал, что этот прием , ” сказал демон . ” Все мужчины ненавидятнесчастен, так как я должен ненавидел кто я несчастен за всех живых существ не менее вы , мой создатель терпеть , и презирать меня , твой существо , которому вы обязаны узами , что разрешимых путем уничтожения! Любой из нас . ей убить меня . Как ты смеешь и спорта с жизнью ? выполнять свой долг по отношению ко мне , и я собираюсь сделать с тобой и остальным человечеством . , если вы согласны на мои условия , я дам тебе и Мир может . , но если вы откажетесь, я остановлюсь челюсти смерти , пока она не удовлетворена кровью друзьями остаться ”

Esperanto:

” Diablo, ” mi kriis , “Vi kuraĝas tuŝi ? Kaj ne kredu la malmolajn venĝo metas mian manon sur vian kapon mizera timo ? Away , naŭza insektojn ! Prefere en la salono do mi povus dispremi en polvon ! Kaj, ho, mi povis vi mortigis tiom damninda formorto mizeran ekziston , restarigi tiujn viktimojn ! ”

” Mi atendas ĉi akceptejo ,” diris la demono . ” Ĉiuj homoj nenavidyatneschasten , ĉar mi malamas kiun mi estis mizera por ĉiuj vivantaj estaĵoj tamen vi , mia kreinto rezistos, kaj malestimas min, via infanino, al kiuj vi ligis per obstakloj kiujn solvebla per detruo ! Ĉiuj el ni. Ŝia mortigi min. kiel vi kuraĝas sporto kaj vivo ? fari vian devon al mi, kaj mi faros kun vi kaj la resto de la homaro . , se vi konsentos miajn terminojn, kaj mi donos al vi Pacon povas. , sed se vi rifuzos , mi ĉesos makzelo morto ĝis ŝi ne estas kontenta kun sango restos amikoj ”

Finnish:

“Devil”, huudahdin, “Sinä uskalla pelata? Ja usko ankara kosto laittaa käteni pään kurja pelko? Away, ilkeä hyönteisiä! Edullisesti huoneessa niin voisin murskata tomuksi! Ja oi, voisin olla sinun tappoi niin pirun sukupuuttoon kurjaa olemassaoloa, palauttaa ne uhrit! ”

“Odotin tätä vastaanoton”, sanoi demoni. “Kaikki ihmiset nenavidyatneschasten, koska vihaan, että olin onneton kaikkien elävien olentojen, mutta minun luoja kestää, halveksi minua, olento, jolle sinä olet sidottu siteitä, jotka liukenee tuhoa! Jokainen meistä. Hänen tappaa minut. Kuten uskallat urheilun ja elämän? tee velvollisuus minua, ja minä teen sinun kanssasi ja muut ihmiset., jos hyväksyt ehtoni, ja minä annan sinulle rauhaa., mutta jos kieltäydyt, en lakkaa leuan kuolemaan saakka hän ei ole tyytyväinen veren pysyä ystävinä ”

and back to its mother tongue:

“Devil,” I exclaimed, “You’re afraid to play? And believe harsh reprisals put my hand on the head of a miserable fear? Away, nasty insects! Preferably in the room so I could crush into dust! And oh, I could have you killed so damn extinction miserable existence, restore those victims! ”

“I expected this reception,” said the demon. “All the people nenavidyatneschasten, because I hate that I was unhappy with all living things, but I take my God, despise me, creature, to whom thou art bound by ties that dissolves destruction! Each one of us. His killing me. As you dare to sport and life? Obliged to make me, and I will do business with you and other people., if you agree to my terms, and I will give you peace of mind., but if you refuse, I will never cease until the death of the jaw, he is not satisfied with the blood remain friends ”

And hear you may listen to the babelized mix, with the additions of Turkish and simplified Chinese mixed in…

And what can this teach us? That all the world’s a book, and stories are like monsters that take on a life of their own as we tell and retell them?

I’m not sure. But it sure is fun.

translation ableton

 

Do Authors Need Tenure?

stack of books
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The tenure system works precisely because it insulates scholars from market pressures and encourages them to pursue work motivated by passion, intellectual curiosity, social and political change, and the desire to bring new things into the world. If we want a vibrant literary culture, we need tenure for novelists and poets.

Creative writing programs currently provide tenure to a small number of authors, especially in the fields of literary fiction and poetry, which partake in the European High Art tradition and enjoy an elevated cultural status. But it’s no less urgent to nurture talented authors working in genres like fantasy and science fiction. Without a tenure system that embraces a diverse set of authors, we risk letting our speculative worlds, our visions of alternative and future realities, become stale and shallow.

The sticking point is how to select and vet the tenure recipients. Should tenure go to authors with a record of success in the marketplace? Should the public vote? Should we create an annual Olympics of the Written Word? Should we leave this up to panels (and to go further down the rabbit hole, how do we select the panelists)? A lottery?

Regarding the question of who pays for all of this, I’ll refer you to Lee Konstantinou’s excellent “Two Paths for the Future of the Author,” written on the bustling floor of the Frankfurt Book Fair (a thoroughly market-driven space, if there ever was one) in 2013.

LitStarter

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It seems the old models for books are changing. Increasingly, audiences expect content to be free, and there is more competition for their limited attention. As we have been talking about future business models for writers and readers, I have started to reflect on my relationship with Kickstarter. I teach interactive device design classes, and do a fair bit of hobby electronics myself, which is why I’m a regular backer of various electronic device projects that are on the site. Could we start a KickStarter exclusively for writing and reading?

On some level, people are already using KickStarter to fund book projects. I backed my friend Jon’s project to make an exhibition and catalogue, etc. called All Possible Futures recently. A little search/research shows that our very own Andrew Losowsky is involved in a project called HRDCVR, “a book-shaped magazine for the new everyone” which currently has 129 backers for $8,369 pledged of its $150,000 goal—I wonder if that will take off.

Of course, this means we’ll have to have trailers for prospective books. Wait. What? There are already trailers for books? (Who knew?) Trailers will work a lot better for famous writers, or writers with famous friends. And of course, you need a budget, roughly $10k—which, let’s face it, if a writer had on hand they probably shouldn’t be blowing it on a video. Would a sample paragraph be enough? Could we train people to read book treatments?

The other thing that Kickstarter demands is a schedule. Every writing project has a schedule, but it isn’t usually the readers who are watching the clock. Maybe this is why projects like Longshot work, because the schedule is so limited, and the success or failure is thus carefully proscribed. There is a kind of work that is suited to this type of sprint, but maybe so many other works that aren’t. Definitely not something for the modern-day Joseph Hellers. Although, maybe Joseph Heller could have been ferried through his many dry years on the contributions of so many high-school-required-readers-turned-fans.

I do think that a site dedicated to featuring literary projects would be better for both readers and writers than a site where you end up finding a cool book proposal when you were just checking in to see how the LED cat sweater you backed is doing. Maybe more experimental work would happen because people would more easily find the audience their weird project ideas resonated with. Maybe the plaintive customer service inquiries from backer/readers would be an antidote to writer’s block.