50 GB still seems pretty big to me. We can all date ourselves in the computer age by the amount of storage that first seemed huge. I was 11 when my father brought home a computer that had 220 Megabytes on its hard drive, and it was like the new sublime, until I tried importing a CD in WAV format; I remember looking in horror at how much of that space Pearl Jam’s Ten took up on that previously sublime amount of space.
But 50 GB, that’s still pretty big for a book, right? I take it from the standard size of Blu-ray discs of movies, which confer upon most blockbusters (and even movies that score very low—very rotten—on RottenTomatoes.com) the laurels of multiple commentary tracks, interactive features, making-of featurettes, and so forth. It feels to me like a “deluxe” treatment for a movie that came out last year. Even though this treatment seems to be a purely industry-driven form of added value, at the same time, why not?
So: What would a 50-GB edition of a book look like?
Or, to ask it another way: what materials would be worth putting onto a sublimely huge edition of a contemporary book?
We have great models already, of course. The Norton Critical Editions series is great, and I teach with these all the time: they collect a good edition of a text with explanatory footnotes, letters from the author, information about different editions of the text, early reviews of the novel, and excerpts from critical essays. The edition of Nella Larsen’s Passing, a novel about an African American woman passing for white in 1920s New York, contains news clippings and other materials about a major contemporary court ruling on a “passing” case, as well as excerpts from many of the other books from that era that also addressed passing as a social issue. I love teaching students from this edition, and it’s just paper, but: this is still in the Mere Megabytes. (It would even have fit onto that 220 MB hard drive in 1992.)
There are lots of terrific online archives for authors like Walt Whitman, the pre-Raphaelites, Marcel Proust, Miguel de Cervantes, and many, many others. These stretch our imagination about what a “deluxe” treatment would be for a great book—images, sound recordings, films, and more that can enhance the experience of learning about a text—and they’re also edging into Gigabyte Territory.
The big change with contemporary fiction in the age of the web has been just how much readers and critics respond to texts on fan sites, discussion forums, fiction sites, and in other creative modes—I think that’s how we fill our Blu-ray book. And I think such a book would be an amazing record of what books do—and what we do with books—in the world. The Blu-ray book would trace as much of the network of a book’s presence on the web as possible, aiming for the maximum. We could have an edition of Twilight that aggregates fan fiction, discussion forums, records of cosplay events, and so forth.
Would we read it all? Probably not, but we could create features that would make it navigable. If we want to read fan stories with particular tags—centering on a particular character, with a certain number of “thumbs-up,” or in a particular alternate world of the novel. And sure, this “edition” of a novel is already how the most avid readers interact with a text already. Imagine the way a Harry Potter fan might scour the web for more fiction and discussion about Ronald Weasley’s further adventures at Hogwarts.
The 50-GB book would have to be dynamic. (Wait: okay, if our hypothetical book has to be an object, then let’s say it’s a rewritable Blu-ray disc). Scripts could aggregate the kinds of materials from fan sites I’ve mentioned already, along with allusions, TVtropes.com entries (the Wikipedia of the conventions of science fiction, fantasy, and more), reviews of the book in publications and on websites like Amazon and GoodReads, and so forth. We could add feeds into it, and it would change every time someone tagged a new allusion.
Most crucially to the Blu-ray book, we’ll be able to use computational methods to “zoom out”: we could make, say, word clouds, network visualizations, and other sorts of snapshots of the big phenomena that literature make in the world. The ability to zoom in and out, to consider the phenomena of literature as big data and as individual and collective stories, is certainly exciting to me.
And there is, to me, something both exciting and reassuring about the possibility of seeing the big-ness of the book, of bringing a text and its world well into Gigabyte Territory (for now). The Blu-ray book would be a demonstration of an important message for humanists, for publishers, and for policymakers: that people are as enthusiastic about good books now as they’ve ever been.