Frankenstein’s Thousand Exquisite Corpses


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.



SANCHO is the friendliest sidekick. He’ll never serve you a sentence longer than ten words. The sentences all have simple structures. Words with more than four syllables are replaced.

We start on SANCHO in primary school. He teaches us to read and understand texts. That is his goal—to help us understand. Most books become shorter with SANCHO.

Some people like to play a joke. They give SANCHO complicated manuals of advanced physics. It is not a very good way to learn physics.

Some people stay with SANCHO all their lives. They like how he makes reading easy. One cannot blame them. He is the friendliest sidekick.

Some of us move on to FRIDAY. FRIDAY isn’t so concerned with simplicity, but rather with finding the best way to tell a story to whoever might be reading. When you install FRIDAY, she starts learning about you. She looks at your metadata and builds a psychological profile. She maps perceived mood against weather and location and social interactions. She tracks your gaze, senses your micro-expressions, and cross-references this data with the text, so that she learns what makes you smile, what makes you gasp, what provokes emotion in you. She uses this information to predict what kind of an experience you want from the words on the page, and that’s what she serves you.

FRIDAY knows, after you’ve been reading with her for awhile, how long you want to read. She knows where you like to read. She knows the optimum volume of ambient noise for a peak reading experience. She knows that you read on the train, of course, but she also knows at which station on your morning journey, statistically, you begin reading, and at which one you typically stop, look up, and gaze out the window.

Some people are afraid of FRIDAY because her algorithms are so precise and so personal. Some people say it’s scary reading a book with FRIDAY. But the truth about FRIDAY is that she’s also friendly. She doesn’t want anything more than for you to be happy, for you to enjoy the act of reading, for you to read the perfect story, the perfect article or essay, every time.

We don’t need to talk about TRIVELIN.

Why are you bringing up TRIVELIN? He’s not useful. TRIVELIN only plays tricks on you. He lies. He omits words. Sometimes he omits . He moves text around. They say TRIVELIN was created by a hacker collective, but no one wants to take credit for it. No one wants the grief. The thing about TRIVELIN is that he’s skinned just like FRIDAY, so you don’t know he’s messing with you until it’s too late. Why are you bringing up TRIVELIN?

But here’s the thing: some people actually like TRIVELIN. They’re masochists, of course. They say he keeps them on their toes. I know of one person who reads exclusively in TRIVELIN. She’s never given me a good explanation of why. All I can think is that secretly, she thrives on chaos.

More common are the casual “Trivelinos,” people who switch back and forth between FRIDAY and TRIVELIN, to keep things interesting. Some people even install TRIVELIN within FRIDAY, so that FRIDAY herself can learn to sub-switch to TRIVELIN functionality when she senses that it’s appropriate.

And here’s another thing. Some people say that TRIVELIN is the only way to read some texts. By forcing unexpected cognitive leaps, by juxtaposing disparate themes and ideas, TRIVELIN reveals their secrets in a way that no other sidekick can, in a way that transcends even the original source material. TRIVELIN is the key that unlocks them. For a few people, it comes close to religion.

But also, TRIVELIN lies.

The Future of Imagination


In one way, a book is a remarkably crude, blunt tool.

Its component parts are rudimentary and primitive. It consists of words, and these words don’t do anything other than sit there and beg to be read. An author constantly asks her readers to picture this, imagine that. Books are needy.

Looked at against richer media, it’s kind of amazing that books still exist at all. They don’t move. They can’t carry a tune. They’re simply not capable of the kind of visual beauty that we can get elsewhere in the media ecosystem. They require an investment of time and active attention that no other media form demands, and that is supported nowhere else in our daily lives.

Latimeria Chalumae

Image by Alberto Fernandez Fernandez

In a way, they’re a bit like the coelacanth — a holdover technology from a much earlier era, a strange evolutionary dead-end that somehow never died.

The thing about books, though, is that it’s not their primitive components that make them work. It’s the imagination of the reader, and that is an incredibly potent—and timeless—media tool. The power of a book comes from the act of reading it.

So the question of the future of books is really a question about the future of the imagination.

If we start from that premise, I believe there are two questions that naturally follow:

1) Assuming that the book itself is an evolving technology, however crude, how can we use technology to not only preserve, but amplify its power as an engine of the imagination?


2) What do we want the act of imagination that we call “reading” to look like and feel like in the future?

I don’t think either question has a right or wrong answer. But I think they’re both essential questions for any writer, or any serious reader, for that matter, to consider.

As to the first question, I have some dogmatic sentiments about what is and isn’t an appropriate use of technologies to augment the act of reading. I think everything else I believe flows from a personal core philosophy that reading is an act that requires focused attention. I also consider this question primarily as a storyteller, and I realize that not all books exist to tell a story. But as a storyteller, I believe that anything that distracts from the primary act of tracking words and their meanings puts distance between reader and material and disrupts the engine of imagination.

So how do we add to the experience of reading without breaking the engine? Again, I don’t think there’s a correct answer, but I believe that’s the right question for authors to ask. I can think of some interesting case studies that might point the way towards a future I would be excited about.

Robin Sloan’s “The Truth About the East Wind” (2010) is a short story with a subtle audio track, with cues triggered by scrolling down the length of the single-page text. About halfway through the story, a sound effect begins—a whistling wind—so quiet as to be imperceptible. As the reader keeps scrolling, the wind grows in volume until, by the end, it’s a howling squall (or that’s how I remember it, anyway).

What’s cool about “East Wind” is that, as a reader, you don’t need to do anything other than read, and as a consequence of that one act, the text comes alive in a way that dawns on you only gradually.


From The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

The interplay of text and image in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008) is an elegant example of design and illustration that exists seamlessly around and among the text of the story. Dave McKean’s illustrations lead the reader from one page to the next—they follow the momentum of the reader’s eye so that processing an image is something that happens in parallel with reading the text that surrounds it.

If I had to distill any sort of guiding design principle from these examples, I think it would be the notion that as the book evolves, the media that augments it should function in parallel to the text, and not at oblique angles and tangents. A book becomes a deeper collaboration between author and experience designer. And it demands a deft touch from both.

If that’s the case, then the act of reading doesn’t actually change much. It’s still a focused, directed act, and it still requires the reader to call on her imagination. And maybe, just maybe, something even richer will emerge.

Reading a book might become an experience in itself.

As a writer, I think the greatest possible accomplishment is that your readers will have a memory of the act of reading your work, and not just of the content. There’s a future where our power to create texts that achieve this effect is even greater. That’s the one I want to see.

Three Versions of Here, Three Versions of Why


Here: A small conference room on the fourth floor of a mission-style building, with a balcony looking out on palm trees and the beige and green hills of western Palo Alto.

Here: A collection of interesting people with diverse talents and experiences, all of us sighing and scratching our heads and tapping away at our keyboards.

Here: A screen full of text and images, in no place in particular, at no particular time, being consumed by you, the reader, wherever you are.

So why am I here, in this room, in this group of people, on your screen? There’s a selfish reason. The very act of answering this question is one part of the reason I’m here. I’m a writer, which means I spend large amounts of time seeking out quiet, spacious solitude, and then filling it with what I hope are or will one day become good ideas. I do this work, largely, alone. The process of telling a story is not a solitary act—there are readers and editors, there are conversations and questions that lead to revisions and restructurings, there are designers and artists and typesetters, all of whom conspire to produce a thing made of information that exists in the world in some form or another.

But the practice of writing, of putting words together into ideas, is, for me anyway, a very solitary experience. And one reason I’m here is to challenge this mode of working and thinking. There are fourteen of us, all trying to answer this question right now, and maybe this unity of purpose will reveal some new aspect of the practice of writing, some new kind of voice that emerges from collective, collected solitude. I’m greedy for new skills and new approaches. If this process surfaces new powers of craft, I want them.

A second reason: I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had the opportunity to tell stories in a variety of media. I’ve also had the opportunity to tell stories with different narrative shapes. Some have been linear. Some have had diverging paths. Some have consisted of many singular nodes. We live in a world where stories are increasingly media-agnostic, and as a result, they’ve come to take on many different shapes. A good story branches. A great story explodes. I hope one reason I’m here is because I’ve seen firsthand some of the many emergent behaviors of stories in the wild. And I hope to learn of others from the many qualified field researchers assembled here.

There’s another reason, too, and this is the one that really hums in my chest when I think about it. I believe that when we talk about the future of reading, we’re really talking about the future of the imagination. Imagination is the engine that powers storytelling. I want to know how we as readers will insert ourselves into the stories of the future, because that is the process of reading that I’m most interested in. I want to think about how new tools and technologies will speak to our imaginations, how the stories of tomorrow will read us even as we read them.