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.

In Defense of Literary Celebrity

Barnes & Noble in Manhattan

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

– William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)

I’m concerned about the kinds of conversations we’re able to have with each other about books now, in an increasingly fragmented literary landscape. In what ways can we talk about books with one another when even avid readers haven’t read any of the same books?  Like Yeats (and Joan Didion, who invoked this same passage in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)), I’m worried about dispersion.

Even with my most literate friends, I find myself mostly pitching books, talking mostly about plot. After all, it’s almost impossible to talk about style, craft, and the subtle nuances of ideology with people who haven’t read the book. I read a lot of literary fiction, and I admit that my particular form of anxiety might be specific to that genre. How do I really talk about the greatness of a Jennifer Egan or Jeffrey Eugenides when I’m stuck explaining the plot? In other words, do I have to enroll in an MFA program to have these conversations about texture and form?

It’s this concern with the analytical quality and specificity of our conversations about books that leads me to literary celebrity as a construct. I find celebrity promising as a construct because it is a cultural machine for generating common points of reference. But I’m increasingly certain that for most of the literary landscape, it’s doesn’t really exist. I might think that Margaret Atwood (winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Booker Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship) or E.L. Doctorow (winner of the National Humanities Medal, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, and the Library of Congress Prize) are bona fide consensus figures: living legends. But my most literate friends and my colleagues at Arizona State University frequently know little about them and their work. At the same time, they’re equally scandalized about my lack of familiarity with Jonathan Lethem or Thomas Pynchon.

In the chair next to me, Lee Konstantinou is writing about One Book and Big Read projects that unite an entire community around a single text. Two seats down from Lee, Dan Gillmor is writing about how authors create small niches of readers who hold them in particularly high regard. Digital platforms like Goodreads and in-person social formations like book clubs (not to mention university programs at the undergraduate and graduate level) represent ways of confronting this problem. And maybe it’s not a problem after all. Some readers/consumers prefer dispersion to an arbitrary and exclusionary canon, especially since most of our canons unquestioningly support and reproduce the privilege of wealthy straight people, white people, and men.

But I still worry that there’s something impoverished about a literary marketplace without (deserving) celebrities. Even in its most easily-despisable Hollywood form, celebrity enables diverse groups of people to participate in conversations at a significant level of detail. Celebrity can be a conduit for incredibly broad and inclusive conversations about values, ethics, politics, and the mechanics of identity and selfhood. Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Lindsay Lohan and their ilk give us a rich grammar to talk about who we are and who we want (and don’t want) to be. I believe that books are even more powerful devices for generating productive and challenging conversations, but without literary celebrity to diffuse shared referents throughout large swaths of the public, reading becomes a solitary activity instead of a starting point for interaction, interpretation, and thoughtful debate.

Maybe Goodreads and LibraryThing solve this problem for some of us. I hope that people respond to this piece by suggesting tools for having these kinds of in-depth, deliberative conversations.

It’s worth noting that digital platforms like Goodreads chain together reading and writing. If you want to use one of them to have a conversation about a book, you have to commit to some intellectual labor. So for those of us who consider ourselves ardent readers but not always enthusiastic writers, Goodreads can feel like another chore. And for a white collar professional / knowledge worker like me, Goodreads and book clubs sometimes too closely resemble things like web management and staff meetings—they can look and feel a little bit too much like work.

Perhaps this is an arena where booksellers can act as curators, or where other cultural authorities (like Lee Konstantinou’s Book DJ) can catalyze and manage conversations. By performing the cultural work of igniting and managing conversations in a highly visible way, maybe they can make the rest of us feel like we’re just having fun, enriching our minds, and freeloading on their sweat.

In their defense, authors and publishers are doing everything they can on the celebrity front—from Twitter and Facebook to low-yield book tours and TV appearances, where they can pick them up. Is literary celebrity even possible anymore? The only place I see it these days is in the red-hot young adult market; J.K. Rowling, like Stephen King before her, even failed in a subterfuge to escape her global fame. Maybe it’s just not possible for authors like my beloved Egan and Eugenides to “tip” in a broader media landscape where films, TV, and increasingly video games dominate our attention economy.

Perhaps the shift to “lifelong learning” that we’ve continued to hear about throughout the 1990s and 2000s will mean that classroom-style interpretive exercises—either in-person or virtual—will become a more consistent part of people’s adult lives. But “lifelong learning,” at least so far, hasn’t been a conversation about humanities education. I do believe that structure and obligation and community membership—soft forms of force—might be necessary if we want literary discourse to be a vibrant part of the broader culture. This will also require a critical understanding of the concept of a “canon” as something to be questioned, revised, critiqued, and examined closely, instead of an unassailable stamp of cultural primacy.

To close with one last quandary: if we’re not having these conversations about literature, has the conversation moved to another cultural site? Are video games, or apps, or movies, or sports, the place to look for robust, inclusive, analytical conversations that are “about” more than they seem to be about? If we can agree that it’s valuable to come together and talk about something we all have in common, what is that thing today? What should it be in the future?


Photo courtesy of Monica Arellano-Ongpin, used under a Creative Commons license

For Nonfiction Writers, New Connections with Readers


Once, we manufactured books. The process—writing to editing to design to production to printing to shipping to selling—followed an Industrial Age model: create, manufacture, distribute.

That system is breaking down in the 21st Century. We still create, though increasingly we do it in a collaborative way. More important is what we do with what we create: We put it online; other people come and get it; and we all talk about it. The new model: create, make available, discuss.

by AJ Cann, via Flickr:

by AJ Cann, via Flickr:

For authors of all kinds, the new system offers incredible new opportunities and challenges. For readers, there’s so much more to choose from, and sometimes a deeper connection to the authors.

I’m convinced, based on my own work, that the opportunities for nonfiction writers vastly outweigh the challenges. The keys are conversation and reputation.

When I was working on my  first book, We the Media (2004), I’d already learned from blogging that conversation with my audience—I was a newspaper columnist at the time—was improving my work. So I published the outline and chapter drafts on my blog. The feedback was amazing, and the result was a much better book.

A decade ago this summer, the book became available, into bookstores and on the Internet. We published it under a Creative Commons license that allowed anyone to download, read and share it for free. I opted for Creative Commons in large part to make a statement: that while I strongly believed (and still do) in copyright, I also felt strongly (and still do) that the American copyright system was broken—and that it was more important to me that people be able to read what I’d written than to attempt to wring every last penny out of the process.

What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that I was exploring some new boundaries of conversation with my audience, enhancing my own reputation, and ultimately ensuring that the book would make money. By ensuring that anyone who wanted to read the book could do so, I was marketing my ideas, not just a book. Inevitably, or at least to the extent that my ideas were credible, that boosted my reputation in my relatively small literary niche: the collision of media and technology. It definitely led to more speaking invitations, some of which were for pay. (Not coincidentally, I’m still getting royalty checks for that book, because it’s been free to download since the day it went into bookstores.)

Nonfiction authors no longer have to rely on publishers’ publicity departments, not that publicists have ever been all that effective in the first place. Marketing has always been part of the author’s job, even if that’s an uncomfortable role.

Since most authors don’t have mega-bucks marketing budgets, we market our work in mini ways, and hope that everything we do adds up to creating attention. Attention spurs conversation (and vice versa) and, assuming high-quality ideas and writing, boosts reputation, which feeds back into attention. All are related to sales of books and speaking gigs, of course, but also to other kinds of benefits that accrue from reputation, including (as in my own case) offers of other kinds of paid jobs.

Where should we have these conversations? I’m tempted to answer, “Everywhere we can create good ones”—but that feels wrong given the bad behavior of some of the companies that host these conversations, Facebook in particular. I realize I’m costing myself significant contact with my own audience by abstaining from that service, but I can’t abide its corporate policies, many of which have been designed to reduce people’s privacy in a world where we need more and more control over our data, not less. Moreover, we don’t really control what we post on Facebook (and Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram et al.) because they are platforms owned by third parties that have the right to remove our work at their discretion. Yes, participate in social networks. But I tell my students they should register their own domain names, and create blogs. Every author—every author—should do this, too, and create an online home base where they can define themselves, and which they own.

Over the years I’ve developed a few rules for my conversations. Here are a few:

  • Always answer email about your work. Even if someone is writing to tell you you’re an idiot, and explains why, you can make a fan out of a critic by paying attention. I learn more from people who think I’m wrong than from people who agree with me, after all. (And when you discover you’re wrong, say so.The only exception is pure abuse.
  • Use the social networks not just to promote, but also to engage. I don’t respond to every Twitter post with my @dangillmor username in it, but I do this enough to keep learning new things.
  • I like getting paid speaking gigs, but I often do them just for expenses if I have the time and the location and audience will be new. Kevin Kelly, a wonderful technology writer, does speaking gigs for people who’ll agree to buy copies of his books for the audience.
  • Join other people’s conversations. You don’t have to post everything you say only on your own site or in your own social media feed. Sometimes I reply to people with blog posts, but it’s a signal of respect to comment on other people’s work where they wrote it in the first place.
  • Above all, don’t do all the talking. The first rule of having a good conversation is to listen.

The Need for Literary McNuggets


The publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash once described the true function of the Oprah Book Club in this way: “Books help Oprah more than Oprah helps books.” When Oprah got someone to read a book with her, she did so in order to capture “mind share during the other 23 hours of the day” when that member of her audience was not watching her show (Spavlik 2011). The point of reading Toni Morrison or William Faulkner with Oprah was not to appreciate Toni Morrison or William Faulkner. The point was to appreciate Oprah. Nash called this the “Oprah Effect.”

This description makes the Oprah Book Club sound like a diabolical scheme, devised in some dystopian near future, meant to hack our brains. And it may well have been just that. But Nash did not mean to condemn but to praise Oprah’s methods of mental colonization. He hoped that publishers might learn from Oprah, emulate her, better capture the attention of audiences, monetize that captured attention in new and exciting ways.

I’d like to turn Nash’s argument around. Whatever we think of the so-called Oprah Effect, Oprah’s Book Club was never only just a form of audience management. It also served an important purpose for her viewers. Indeed, Oprah’s Book Club served much the same function as ordinary book clubs. That is, it organized attention, formed communities, and visualized specific realizable goals for individual readers. Oprah’s Book Club exposed nothing other than the individual reader’s hunger to participate in collective life.

If there’s something nefarious about the Oprah Effect, it’s the way that our hunger for collectivity seems to have been hijacked by a corporate agenda. We might prefer our collective reading projects to be something other than forms of celebrity brand management.

Fortunately, there are alternate models.

I was fortunate to help organize one such alternate model during the summer of 2012 for the Los Angeles Review of Books. I had been asked to review William Gaddis’s J R (1975), a massive 700+ page novel that had just been reissued by Dalkey Archive Press. It was a daunting assignment, and I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to read the book over the course of my summer while attending to my other obligations. I suggested to the editors that we not just review the book but organize an online book club, which would read ten pages of Gaddis’s dense novel per day.

Participants could Tweet about the book using the hashtag #OccupyGaddis and LARB would publish occasional blog posts by various authors leading up to a formal review of the book at the end of the summer. #OccupyGaddis was partly modeled on Infinite Summer, which read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) over the summer of 2009. There have been a variety of similar online exercises, group reads of Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), and other big books.

#OccupyGaddis was a tremendous success. It drew far more people than I expected. The group reading took on a life of its own, and spawned an non-LARB-affiliated follow-up called #AutumnalCity, a collective reading of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) conducted by many of the same people who participated in #OccupyGaddis.

All of which has led me to arrive at a few conclusions about public book clubs. First, the so-called decline of serious reading has been overstated. Our reading culture, though under assault, is not declining as quickly as some fear. There are still large communities of readers—and not just university-bound readers—who are excited to read challenging books together, and looking for opportunities to meet like-minded readers.

Second, collective reading need not only be a vehicle for celebrity brand management. Group-reading projects, in fact, express a powerful desire for a cultural commons. This desire may be channeled into various forms of consumer manipulation, but it need not be.

A better use of the desire for a literary commons would be to create durable institutions that would cultivate and spread public cultures of reading. Some communities have already attempted this, trying to get entire cities (“One City One Book”) or universities to read the same book at the same time. The effort to find books appropriate for the whole community has led to controversy in the selection of particular books (which is always also a political choice). But controversy shouldn’t be regarded as a danger to be avoided but a feature of such efforts to forge consensus and mutual understanding. Literary culture is, after all, unavoidably also political culture.

Others dislike the very idea of exercises in mass reading. “I don’t like these mass reading bees,” the literary critic Harold Bloom told the New York Times in 2002. “It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once” (Kirkpatrick 2002). Of course, the problem with Chicken McNuggets isn’t that we eat them all at once. It’s that they’re manufactured by a large, impersonal corporation that doesn’t have much incentive in caring about our health or gustatory wellbeing.

What we need to do is find ways of producing, distributing, and consuming more delicious, nutritious, satisfying literary Chicken McNuggets. This is a central task for any exercise in imagining the future of reading.

Is It Long Enough to Grab My Attention?


With all this hand-wringing about how no one has any attention span left anymore, that people only read on their phones while walking from the car into the house, or in those few moments in between checking Facebook and writing a hundred text messages an hour, I wonder why I just don’t feel such pressures.

When I think about deciding to read something I wonder: Is it long enough my attention? Or will I just get into the story and find that it is suddenly over? I don’t want to jump from screen to screen and story to story. I’d rather be seduced by the simple flow of words. I want to begin at the beginning and be lured on to follow the tale to its end, an end that shouldn’t come too soon. Otherwise why even begin?

I don’t think I’m the only one to feel this way. Long novels still get written, and still get read. People do want to get immersed in the story. In fact, it might be the most immersive stories that best survive the transition from printed page to swiping screen. If you care enough about what will happen next, then you stop noticing what it is you are reading on and get carried away by the way the action finds itself in words.

Writing held firmly in the firmament of words has always seemed more pure than media, which wants to immerse us in worlds by giving us extra fixes on the imagination that perhaps we don’t really need: pictures, movies, and sound that may add to the experience but distract from the purity of language working on its own.

We are supposed to be talking about design in this sprint and all of us seem to agree that electronic books are under-designed; that they do not use fonts, leading, line width, and line spacing to the best advantage. While giving the reader endless options for customization, they do not teach us what makes one book more beautiful than another.

But wait a minute—do I mean to say that how the book looks might be more important than what it says? I just finished arguing for the clarity of language as opposed to any ornamentation of what needs to be said, so who needs design? I’m learning here from John D. Berry, a fantastic book designer who has had a hand in the look of so many of the favorite titles on my home shelves, and he said one rather remarkable thing: You have to choose the line length only after delving into the way each author writes. Different language suggests different layout, and one shouldn’t give up on this opportunity when faced with the allure of digital convenience.

Whatever goes in to our three-day book jam, it should be designed in a unique and powerful form that gives an example of how the next generation of books might be fashioned, and conceived.

Sending the Right Signals


What’s in a book? This is the question we ask, albeit unconsciously, before deciding to buy a physical book. We want to know that the book is worth the cover price, and the time we’re going to spend reading it. Of course, we can’t truly know in advance. But a book sends us signals—cover art, quotes from authors, number of pages—that we can use to guess at its content and quality.

What signals can and should digital books send? The answers matters, because the digital world is so competitive. Contrast these scenarios: arriving at the start of an article via a link on social media; looking at a book after picking it off a bookstore shelf. The latter is much more contemplative. And on social media, in fact almost everywhere on the Internet, we are used to encountering short chunks of text. So digital books don’t just have to compete with other digital books—they often have to compete with the rest of the Internet.

Here’s an aside that makes that point. I was chatting recently with a designer at the company where I work. She’s smart and loves to read, but she told me she almost never reads long articles. (In this context, “long” means anything over 2,000 words.) She said that she never knew if the investment in the story would be worth it. In other words, the long articles she was seeing weren’t signalling her correctly.

Of course, digital stories can borrow all the techniques used in print. They can and do come with cover art, endorsements, summaries, etc. But digital offers us an untold number of different ways of signalling quality. What are the other options? I don’t know the answer, but here are two ideas that I think are interesting:

A better version of Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature. It’s pretty horrible to use at present, but Amazon’s tool is great in that it allows readers to sample a large work, just as people will open a book and read a random page before deciding whether to buy it. What might a better version of this tool look like?

Make the structure visible. I often look at the chapter page of a book before starting it. I’m not even sure why—the page doesn’t usually tell me anything particularly useful. I guess it’s an attempt to gauge the contours of the mountain I’m about to climb. What might a digital contents page look like? There’s no need to replicate the print version. Could the contours of a book could be expressed graphically, for example?

Thinking About the Page


The book page is an artifact of the delivery medium: it’s written or printed on a physical sheet of paper (or a carefully prepared sheepskin turned into parchment, or a section of a papyrus scroll). The two-page spread is simply an artifact of our codex form of book-binding, which always opens to two facing pages. But what’s a page in an e-book?

The onscreen page isn’t really the medium on which the content is displayed so much as it is a window into a part of the content. The part that’s being displayed is the “page,” but how much content fits onto that page depends on a lot of factors, such as the choice of font, the size of the fonts, and the space between lines. In the resizable, reflowable world of e-books, the “page” is constantly changing.

It also might change if you go from reading a book on your laptop to continuing to read the same book later on your phone; the screen size and shape can be entirely different. It’s not just a matter of scaling the whole page up or down in size. (Though if you’re reading a fixed layout, such as a PDF of a page from a printed book, then that’s exactly what you’re doing. Which is why it’s such an unsatisfactory way to read a book onscreen, unless the PDF has been designed for the format you’re using.)

Web designers and interactive designers sometimes refer to the “viewport,” which is the screen or the part of the screen that the content is displayed within. (When I say “the part of the screen,” I’m thinking of the way most web browsers and many apps impose a scrim of “chrome” around the live part of the page: buttons or frames or navigational tools, anything that’s not the basic content.) This is a useful way of thinking about it. Just as the printed text fits onto the physical page, the digital text fits within the bounds of the viewport.

Although a book of long, continuous text functions as a single flow from beginning to end, there are other kinds of books that involve a complex set of elements, both text and visual, that have to be arranged somehow with respect to one another. Think of a cookbook or a textbook. On the printed page, the book designer can arrange the elements appropriately, so the book is easy to use. The list of ingredients comes before the step-by-step recipe, for instance, and is clearly delineated as a separate element, or the footnotes and sidebars and numbered illustrations are set apart from the running text in a way that makes them easy to find when you want them, yet keeps them from getting in the way while you’re reading the main text. A good designer is always thinking about each visual element, including plain old paragraphs of running text, in relation to the space on the page and its edges.

How do we do that on a digital page that keeps changing? Can we design a complex “page” based on the size and shape of the viewport? Unless we’re going to restrict the reader’s ability to change things—font size, for an obvious starting point—then we’ve got to invent rules and patterns for how the elements on the page will behave when something changes. Creating the design and production tools that will give a designer that ability is one of the most important tasks ahead of the e-book industry.

In my experience of designing books and periodicals for many years, I’ve found that the most important single factor that makes a paragraph of text readable is the length of the line. Not the physical length (3 inches or 20 centimeters or whatever) but the number of letters and words that fit on each line. The usual rule of thumb in English is that a line of about ten words works well (with an “average” word of five letters plus a space), or 60–70 characters per line. Obviously that might change from one language to another, and it would be entirely different in a written language that uses ideograms rather than letters (Chinese, for instance), but I’m sure each language has its own rules of thumb. Also obviously, the ideal line length might vary from one writer to another. (I know that from experience. I once designed a book of essays by shamelessly swiping the page design of another book of essays by a favorite writer of mine, designed by an excellent book designer; but the pages I designed didn’t work as well. It took me a while to realize that the writer of my book habitually used words and phrases that were hard to break, so I kept getting too-wide spaces between words in the lines, despite my best efforts. And it wasn’t that he used long words; it’s much easier to find a hyphenation point in a word like dissimulation, for example, than in through or enough.) Rules of thumb are just descriptions of useful patterns; they always have exceptions.

I’m always amazed at people who look at websites by having their browsers “maximized” to the full width of a laptop or desktop computer screen. Unless the website has been designed to accommodate this, the lines of text are almost always much too long to be comfortable to read. The same problem comes up in printed business documents with inadequate margins; a page of 10-point Times New Roman spread across seven or eight inches is simply not easy to read. (It’s worth keeping in mind that Times New Roman began life as a newspaper typeface; it was designed to be read on newsprint in narrow columns.) Line length matters.

A smart digital page would adapt its layout to the size and shape of the viewport. [I wonder if we also want to give users more options for understanding their choices. People could voluntarily go through a short tutorial/quiz that informs readers of the contextual differences between, say, sans and serif, and how that can affect the reception of content. I also want every text to have an “author optimized” option, which is how the author/designer would like you to read it (including information about the best kind of device for the content). You don’t have to agree, but at least it could give the reader a less generic starting point.—AL] On a little phone screen, the text would be in a single column of short lines; on a laptop screen with a maximized window, the same text might appear in two or three columns, each of a comfortable line length. If the reader boosted the font size to a much larger size, the three-column page might rearrange itself into two columns. The smart page simply wouldn’t let the line length get too long for comfortable reading.

This is one of the reasons that we still need “pages.” A continuously scrolling page, like the archetypal web page, is only feasible if there’s only one column of text; otherwise, you’d have to keep scrolling back up to the top to continue reading in the next column. When people say they don’t like multi-column layouts on a web page, they usually mean this. Multi-column layout requires pagination.

The New New Media


Exit Doormat: Serial format. 2′ x 3′ x 1″ or 60 x 90 cm x 2.5 cm in metric system countries. Sends you out towards your day with a bit to chew on. Latest bestseller is a RPG based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) in which your character is assigned based on your social network and the chemical breakdown of the residue on the bottom of your shoes when you return home every day.

Headbox: Cubic long-form media. You stick your head in the hole at the bottom of the head box in order to dedicate yourself solely to the experience of the medium. Typically used in hour-long bits over the course of a week or so, or one transatlantic flight. Can be stacked in the living room or garden after consuming so as to beg conversation about the experience. Latest bestseller is a voluminous box constructed of crude ore on the dawn of the Iron Age by Neal Stephenson.

Sweet Notings: Stories are packaged in confectionery form and played from within your skull when you suck on the candy. Both serial and long-form versions are available. Popular format for short excerpts from longer devotional texts. Latest bestseller is a hour-long bittersweet lollipop by Nicholas Sparks.

Adventure Shoes: Long-form travel literature built into appropriate footwear genre. Stories can be consumed aurally as you travel, or can be read off the bottom of your soles when you’re cooling your heels. Latest bestseller is a peripatetic retelling of the history of the Panama Canal, packaged in black rubber boots, by Bill Bryson.

People Watching Glass Apps: Short-form AR format. Popular at cafes. You just set your eyes on interesting passersby, and stories are projected around them. Latest bestseller is a site-specific work by Lewis Black, Delusions of Grandeur, which was offered at the TED 2025 conference.

Toy-based Omni-media: Serial format targeted at children under 12. Toys, songs, accessories, shows, videos, clothes, games, books, magazines, camps, and curricula adapted to popular character properties. Your children will adopt specific character narratives and then allow this property to pervade your home until such time comes that each character becomes “too childish” for your offspring, whereupon another character set is selected and the omni-media experience repeats.

Celebrity-based Omni-media: Serial format targeted at adults. Same as Toy-based Omni-media, only centered around Actual Famous People rather than fictional characters.

Literary House (for Andrew Losowsky): Extended intermittent long-form multi-media real-life game experience. You reside for an extended period in a house blessed or haunted by a narrative. Aspects of the narrative are ingrained in the decor, interaction, and, in particularly bespoke circumstances, confederate actors that can act as roommates or neighbors. Most spectacular recent example is the gothic Usher house which was sold for $11.5 million in 2023.

Tools for Exploration

An example of a discovered pattern: This ordinary metal grate transforms the point source of a street light into an arc of reflected light.  Why such beautiful arcs?

An example of a discovered pattern: This ordinary metal grate transforms the point source of a street light into an arc of reflected light. Why such beautiful arcs?

I am interested in exploring how e-books can connect with the world beyond the screen, the physical world around us. I love the power of the digital world to capture a viewer’s attention and convey information using a variety of media. But I distrust the tendency of the digital media to narrow a reader’s focus to what’s on a screen, available through Google, tweeted, or blogged.

For 20-plus years, I worked as a science writer at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a museum of science, art, and human perception. At the Exploratorium, I learned to pay attention to the world, noticing things that most people overlook—the color of shadows, the branching patterns of rivers and roads, the patterns of light beneath a tree. I learned to question the world, to search for patterns, and to experiment to discover my own answers.

I would like to consider how e-books can encourage this sort of exploration and experimentation. On the fictional side, I am interested in geographical storytelling where the environment, the reader, and the book combine to make a new experience. On the nonfiction side, I would like to explore how e-books can invite exploration of the environment and provide new avenues for sharing discoveries and experiences.

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.

Why I’m Here


Here’s an allegory that’s probably overused, but it came to me on the drive here today and I can’t shake it from my mind. A hurricane rips through a zoo and, in some magical way, tears the animals’ cages from the ground yet leaves the animals themselves unharmed. The storm subsides and quiet descends. The keepers are still hiding in a storm bunker somewhere. What do the animals do? Nothing. They stare at the wide open spaces in front of them, unsure of what to do with the possibilities that are now open to them.

I said it was overused because I’m sure I’ve seen it applied to other technologies. Still, I feel like it captures where we today with digital publishing. The physical and economic constraints of printed books were torn away by the internet around two decades ago. Yet we—writers, editors, publishers—have often spent the following years staring dumbly at the new digital spaces in front of us. Lately we’ve begun to take a few tentative steps out of our cages, but we’re still overwhelmed by the possibilities in front of us. So overwhelmed that—as Ed Finn put it—we spend most of our time recreating printed books on screens. Or doing something interesting but clumsy, like embedding a video into the middle of a story.

I’m here because I think we should be taking bigger steps, and I think that we can accelerate that process by sharing and critiquing ideas. I’m particularly interested in how we can make progress with long-form nonfiction. The genre that feels right for the digital age, with its emphasis on snackable packets of information. It’s also a genre that’s been hampered by the economics of print. It’s been squeezed into the back of magazines, in an often unhappy marriage with lightweight front-of-the-book material. And how many books are really long-form articles that have been puffed up by unnecessary repetition? Wouldn’t ideas reach more people if they were contained in a beautifully crafted essay rather than a 100,000-word book?

So what big steps might long-form writers and editors be taking? I think we can do some exciting things around the interaction between an author and her or his audience. The challenge is to make that interaction meaningful, to provide genuine value for those on both sides of the exchange. I also think there’s a huge discussion to be had about multimedia storytelling. These are both big topics, and work on them will stretch years ahead—but I’m excited about making progress on both here.

Why I’m Here

Public domain image by Jimos

Public domain image by Jimos

The page is terrifying and liberating. I want to layer it on top of my ideas, to place the world around it and beneath it. I want it to lock down my thoughts so I can keep them on my shelves and look back on them like memories.

Writing freezes a moment and reinforces our memory. Soon the words are shaping our collections of recollections.

I like to sit inside books when I open their hinges, and to feel protected by their fixed boundaries. As soon as those boundaries are taken away, dissolved, reshaped to include everyone at once and nobody in charge, how do I stay on the path? Why do I feel like I need a path? I experience the world through my own experience, and I only hear one voice at a time in my head, writing my narrative for me, as I do. If we open the page to the cacophony, what does it sound like?

You can never cross the same river twice. Can we ever read the same book as another person? Can we ever write the same book as a group?

If we try to organize, to funnel and then filter the best and worst ideas, how much are we going to reinforce cultural assumptions and push away divergent thoughts and experiences?

Words were created to fix information and to lock it down so that it didn’t change whenever we might look at it. If the words keep changing, how long before we start to break them?

Who is the author? Once the text is out there, do they ever stop being the author?

Bay Area author Rebecca Solnit: “Writing is the act of saying to everyone and to no-one what you cannot bring yourself to say to someone.”

Is the future of reading the act of everyone talking to someone, instead of vice versa?

I am here because I don’t know if there are any answers. But I want to find better questions.

Why I’m Here


I’m here to explore the changes that have been happening in publishing and writing as a result of the changing ways that people are reading. Over the past 30 years, the relationship between the writer and the page has changed. What a page actually is has changed. What happens to the pages you write has changed. Many people of varying skills and energy levels have been empowered to write and imagine on the Internet, first in the form of blogs and posts, and more recently, with the advent of easy self-publishing and self-enabled distribution (whether via individual or collective websites or via Amazon and other self-publishing programs).

How will readers sort this out? How will writers sort it out? Will publishers die out and be replaced by platforms? Will more sophisticated sorting systems be developed, beyond the inevitable and inaccurate “More like this”? As a writer I am totally convinced of my value—or rather, the value of my work—to some readers, but in the great noise of the Internet I am not so convinced that those readers will find me or that I will find them.

I am also concerned about exploring new ways of reading and integrating material. William Gibson has sometimes described himself as a collage artist, and I think the changing nature of prose, influenced by hypertextual communication (mainly now in linking, but also possible using more direct hypertext tools), will increase both readers’ and writers’ ability to think several things at once, and to understand multiple associations—sort of living footnotes or interlineations, if you will.

The Medieval manuscripts we were looking at earlier this morning at Stanford University Libraries’ The Circle of the Sun exhibit utilize these same hypertextual additions, limited by the size and format of the manuscript. Experimental writers have long made such associations explicit, but they have had to overcome the constraints of the printed page. We now have a way to create unlimited associations between texts. Is there a way to incorporate that ability into entertaining, accessible works? Are readers becoming better educated in how to read such works, as they leap about the web? Are sophisticated computer games books? There are some excellent writers (Marc Laidlaw and Maureen F. McHugh, among others) involved in creating them.

Certainly the possibilities for a sort of layered, sequential collaboration are here. In Japan, for instance, Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine (1990) was published with a sort of glossary that I had created in English as a friendly critical analysis of the novel (Gunn 1990). Note: the authors of a work many not be happy with this kind of unplanned “collaboration,” but contemporary literary criticism could unfold the meanings of a work in a very interesting way. (Interesting at least for people who are comfortable with handling multiple meanings in a single phrase. Many readers are not.) Aside from criticism, planned narrative collaboration of this sort would probably be interesting and fun to develop.

Writing and publishing have a long history of collaboration: it takes many people to produce a book. With new technologies, the ongoing (post-publication) collaboration between a book and its readers may become more evident.

Why I’m Here


I’m here because I do not go lightly into the realm of digital books, with all of their implications for the intensely human experience of reading. My innately progressive bent turns stubbornly conservative when threatened with the extinction of the hallowed tomes I’ve counted among my closest friends since childhood. I caress physical books. I inhale them. I display them prominently. I achieve a sensory high every time I remove one from its shelf. As an art director, I especially delight in choosing paper stock, finishes, colors. From an early age, they’ve been my drug, and now I’m faced with the DTs of withdrawal.

And yet I manage the creative production of multimedia books that are best served in app form. And so I have found myself making book apps that combine novels, music, and art. I enjoy imagining and executing creative solutions for fusing narrative fiction with rich media in ways that feel faithful and organic to the content of the story. Though wary of gimmicks, bells and whistles associated with gaming, and the distractions that social media can introduce to an experience that requires deep attention, I do believe that fiction can be well-served by native app technology (though I remain adamantly unconvinced about e-books).

Moore’s Law means that these technologies are evolving at an exponential rate, and it can be a lot to keep up with. In addition to long, arduous editing and proofing cycles, there’s the interminable exercise known as beta testing. For an old-school book lover, this can be maddening! Designing for multiple platforms is time-consuming and costly, but the company I work for is in the unusual and fortunate position to be able to afford their high-quality development. I work with only one author and on only one or two titles at a time. Still, we will take a year or more to port a story from first draft to app. Books seem to take longer than ever!

The author I work with and for is even more conservative and anti-Web 2.0 than I, and it’s my job to carry his work forward into ever more daring and engaging formats that will reach new, presumably younger, audiences who demand social interactivity. (To me, reading has always been an inherently interactive experience, so I chafe at this idea, even as I write it.) My publishing company has the resources to push limits, and so I must lead the brigade and buck my own limited ideas about what a book can and should be. Incubating ideas with a coterie of science fiction writers, futurists, and publishers grappling with similar questions seems to me a very good start.

“Why Am I Here?” the Man Asked


What’s the purpose of a “sprint beyond the book”? I guess I’m here to find out.

I am both a book designer and a writer about typography and design, a typographer and an editor, an editorial designer and a reader. All those aspects of publishing and reading seem completely interrelated to me; I’m always surprised when someone concentrates on only one part or another. This “Sprint Beyond the Book” seems like an invitation to explore the ways in which all these parts fit together—not just today, or traditionally, but also in the future.

I’m not interested in just jettisoning the past of publishing and leaping bright-eyed into the unformed future without a thought. Nor am I interested in just re-creating the past of publishing in new forms, though I am committed to maintaining the strengths and the best traditions of book publishing and extending them in new ways.

E-books have followed the pattern set by other new technologies: like the earliest movies, which imitated stage plays, e-books have been imitating printed books, as though transferring a page spread from a printed book onto a screen would somehow be satisfactory. The reading medium is different. Besides obvious differences like backlit projected light rather than reflective light from a printed page (and the in-between forms of e-ink and its progeny), the most fundamental thing about how we read onscreen is that there are many screens: they’re not the same size, nor the same resolution, not necessarily the same aspect ratio (shape), and we look at them in a wide variety of physical situations (sitting at a desk, holding a tablet or laptop in, well, our lap, or peering at a phone screen in bright sunlight on a windy day).

As readers, we’ve gotten used to being able to change how what we’re reading is formatted—most obviously by increasing or decreasing the size of the letters. Just the act of changing the font size changes everything about the composition of the page; all those aspects of text design that a good book or editorial designer pays close attention to (and that a reader should never even notice, if they’re successful) get screwed up when the format is malleable.

What we need, then, is book pages that are smart, that adapt their design intelligently to changing circumstances; book designers of the future need tools that let us make decisions about how the design ought to change, so that we can set defaults for an e-book that will make it inviting and easy to read. (The user—the reader—may well change their settings from the defaults; but 99% of people never change the defaults at all, so they’d better be designed to work well right from the start.)

As the type designer Cyrus Highsmith has pointed out in his witty little book Inside Paragraphs (2012), the paragraph is the fundamental unit of how we read any extended text. And it’s the formatting of that paragraph that makes it readable. Starting with the invention of the word space in the Middle Ages, we’ve found ways to orchestrate and annotate the written word to make it easier to read. That’s what punctuation is all about; as Robert Bringhurst (1992) says, it’s essentially musical notation, telling us how to read the words. The typographer’s tools—line length, font size, color, spacing between letters and words and lines—all exist to help the author communicate and the reader hear.

So we’ve got our job cut out for us: to make up new forms for the book that preserve the values of reading and writing and publishing, while extending them into new areas and discovering what we can add to the art of cultural transmission.