Proscenium and Thrust


The traditional mode of book publishing maps cleanly onto the dominant mode of theatrical performance of the last 19th century, one that has with some exceptions carried forth into the present day: a mode we could call Proscenium Realism. The proscenium first appeared in 1618 at the Farnese Theatre in Parma, Italy. However, it was not until the 19th century that it fully came into its own. It provided quite literally a frame for the performance as if it were a photograph, or an aperture through which the audience could peer into some actual “real” scene unfolding before their eyes. The Realist playwrights of the time wanted to create a sense that there was no artifice, that life as actually lived was occurring before the audience’s eyes—the proscenium enabled that. The more fantastical performances, including opera and ballet, could benefit from the picture window effect, that the audience was witnessing a complete and total illusion, that of a painting come to life.

In both cases, of course, there was an elaborate apparatus undergirding the entire performance. Actors running off-stage to get props, gas and then electric lights dimming as night falls, trees moving on and off, angels being lowered by winches, all carefully hidden by the walls and (when necessary) by the curtain closing and reopening to a new vista no less real than the one that preceded it.

Meanwhile, the world of publishing had been building a machine not dissimilar from the apparatus for producing the theatrical illusion. Theatre has its playwrights, yes, but also stage managers, lighting designers, scenic artists, actors, and composers, its lights, its rigging, its costumes, its sleight-of-hand around forced perspective, the clacking of coconut shells mimicking the clip-clop of horse’s hooves, and so forth. So too with publishing, though in that black box the machine was a manufacturing and distribution apparatus. As with the theatre there were wordsmiths yes, authors yes, at the beginning, but also agents to help frame and contextualize the authors for the editors, editors to evaluate the authors, but also to ensure the author’s writing fit style guides that wouldn’t trip up the ultimate consumer with anachronisms and inconsistencies, designers to create covers to serve partly as images to represent the book, in the manner of classical architecture, but also to help sell the book, like the tried-and-true maneuvers of the strip tease, showing a little of what’s there but suggesting that more, oh so much more is to come. Sales reps, whether the door-to-door snake oil peddlers of the 19th century selling subscriptions out of a bag, or the 20th century model of showing up at the retailers persuading them to stock that publisher’s inventory. Then too over the course of the second half of the century, all the innovations around distribution, often using computing power of the mainframe and PC variety—just-in-time inventory, demand forecasting, tighter product cycles, granular sales data.

And the writers and readers, opposite ends of the supply chain, in a strict producer-consumer relationship, stand at either end of the machine, marveling as its mysterious processes, selecting a handful of writers and magically transforming them into bestsellers, consigning readers to gape slack-jawed at its marvelous outputs, then rushing, after it was all over, the magical words THE END, read, to the stage door, where they hope to catch a glimpse of the creator before s/he is hustled to a waiting car.

In the theatre along comes Brecht and to rip down the curtain. While that is, and what is to follow is, a radical simplification of very complex processes, Brecht, for reasons combining the political and the aesthetic, proposed to blow up the entire architecture of illusion and realism, to show how things are actually made, to show why things were the way they were. Stage hands walked around, handed props to people, brandished the coconut shells, proudly ate the banana the peel of which would be dropped just in time for the actor to slip on it, actors changed costumes in full view, the lights turned around, no longer mimicking the dawn rising, instead turned onto the audience, now suddenly busted for being Peeping Toms. The means of production had been laid bare.

And to book publishing now enters the Internet, stage left, stage right, stage center. The fluorescent lights now turned on. Freelance cover designers now available as guns-for-hire since everyone has Photoshop now, agents trawling Wattpad for the popular writers, forums discussing royalty structures, kerning and leading. Short-run digital printing via Lulu, Lightning Source, Blurb, CreateSpace. Retail access via Amazon and Amazon and Amazon and Amazon. Tablets, phones, and E Ink devices rendering almost all the foregoing optional. The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even. The world is now the stage.

Exploring the Spindles


“Listen to many, speak to a few.” The quote immediately struck her as both a revelation and a cause for anxiety.

Badging “Shakespeare’s Reality” has been a holistically enlightening experience for her. Her “structure” setting on low, Ada’s been jumping around the TOC, diving in at the various node heads and exploring the hyperlinks within, tapping between experiences inside the nodes. So as not to get too lost, she has avoided links that take her inter-node. Her cousin Brady loves to do this, but she finds that even with the handy “spindle map” navigation, she still gets lost and loses focus. Besides, her subscription to LearnVerse is node-specific. Cross-node linking costs extra.

And her explorations have been rich. With her “author width” set to wide, she’s been discovering the rich array of content authored by other users. These are often quite useful and seemingly always more creative than the usual spindles and subs created by the sponsored authors. She’s particularly enamored with the marginalia of a user from Portland, whose comments are all in the form of insightful yet lewd limericks.

Recently she found a rich vein—a collection of Shakespeare lines, speeches, and scenes which sync up to one’s private-side system. The API scans email, texts, searches, e-book content, recent purchases, etc. and offers handy Shakespeare quotes and scenes based on your life. These arrive by text, email, and even phone calls with recorded quotes or actors citing The Bard. She heard a rumor that someone had a group from the “Enacting Shakespeare” badge perform a recommended scene for her right in front of the restaurant where she had 6:00 reservations. That’s what you get for having your “transparency” set to high.

Just now, 8:00 am at the kitchen table, while exploring the Hamlet/Advice branch, she stumbled on a branch authored by student last year. That’s where she found “Listen to many, speak to a few” from Polonius’ famous advice to Laertes. This has sorta been her motto. Ada is shy and thoughtful. She doesn’t like standing out, doesn’t like being visible. However, an original performance module is required for her badge. That, or authoring a minimal spindle. And she just doesn’t have the time for that. It’s time to give back—to “speak to many.” And she’s drawing a blank.

Time to fire up a brainstorming sesh. Ada navigates to the commons and posts an invitation. Turns out three folks had the time to help out. They all synced up in the video chat with whiteboard enabled and got to work. They were all familiar with the usual battery of brainstorming activities. In about 40 minutes, they had all worked out a few good options for Ada’s performance. Also, one of the folks (a guy from Peru!) offered a link to a great acting coaching spindle from his Theatre Badge days. Ada would have to pay a small fee for accessing an outside node, but it’d be worth it. And it would count towards her badge. Cross-node exploration always does.

So this is what she will do. She will use those little figurines she printed from her “Artifact Manifestation” badge and shoot that speech from Polonius. She will do the voiceover and submit the whole thing to the Share Spindle. There, others will likely add music, filters, or maybe include it in a larger piece. From these, she will choose her favorite and publish it. Her scene may be helpful for others’ experience of Shakespeare as they explore the Shakespeare Reality spindles. Who knows, maybe some brave soul with their transparency set to full will get her piece as a text message as they prepare embark on a journey….

Ada’s Settings:

Language: English
Prior Badge Analysis: On
Structure: Low
Transparency: Low
Author Width: Wide
Analytics: Temporal, Physical, Content

Digital Books as Physical Props


The Physical Properties of Books

The affordances of a physical book position the book in your life in a way that goes beyond the simple act of reading. To a buy a physical book, you might go to a used bookstore. You wander the aisles, noticing different titles. If something catches your eye, you can pick it up and flip through the pages. You might notice that the book is heavy, or that the pages look worn. The book has a distinct smell.

As you read a physical book, you leave traces in the book. You underline passages that are particularly meaningful. You fold the corners of pages down to mark your place. The book takes up space in your house. It moves from your coffee table to your nightstand to your bookshelf.

When people come to visit you, they see the book and comment on it. You lend it to a friend who’s always wanted to read it, but hasn’t had the chance. It’s a while before you get the book back, and there are times where you wonder if she’ll ever return it. When she finally does, there’s a distinct coffee stain about a third of the way through. Eventually, you give that particular book away. You never read it any more, and so it no longer seems to have a place on your bookshelf.

If reading a book is a type of performance, the book itself is a prop. The acts of buying, interpreting, displaying, and sharing the book are informed in part by the ability to interact with the book in a physical way.

Making Digital Books More Physical

As books become digitized, the experience of books as physical objects gets lost. When you buy a digital book, you don’t think about how heavy the book is or how it smells. It doesn’t take up physical space in your house, and visitors can’t serendipitously notice and comment on it. It doesn’t show wear. You can’t physically give it to someone, with or without the expectation of getting it back.

What do we lose in the transformation to the digital medium, and what should we think about reincorporating into digital books?

The physical properties of the book are missing. We can produce digital books that show use—how many people have made annotations, where they have made bookmarks—but not wear. There is no information about the condition of the book, how valued the book was. There aren’t physical properties such as weight or smell to link to the experience of reading the book. Building digital books that leave physical traces—e-readers that release smells or have touchscreens that feel differently based on the path of the book—would be one way of preserving the book’s physical properties.

The digital book lacks a physical presence. It can be displayed as part of your digital identity, but does not take up physical space in a way that has real-world significance. Having e-readers that can project images in your physical environment, displaying phantom book covers on your coffee table or bookshelf, would be a way of maintaining the ability to create a physical presence for your possessions.

Finally, the digital book lacks the same sense of ownership as a physical book. It is possible for multiple people to buy, read, and share the exact same copy of a digital book. Each physical book, while having the same text, has unique properties that reflect its journey through the world. It would be interesting to explore how to create multiple copies of a digital book that have the same core content but reflect the unique properties of each instance—who has bought it, who they have discussed the book with, and how valued the book is in its reader’s collection.

While the use of digital books as physical props is technologically feasible, the final question is whether it is necessary. What aspects of the physical affordances of books add value to the experience of reading them, and which ones will simply become artifacts of the past?

Aggregating Audiences Around the Book


1993: I am a freshman in high school, a newly avid reader just discovering a world of books. I haunt the local used books stores looking for titles by my favorite authors and discovering new ones to try. This is a solitary pleasure until one day, visiting a friend, I see some of my beloved books on his shelf. Soon we are trading books, haunting the same bookstores, by chance having become a tiny, two-person audience for our favorite authors.

Most cultural forms aggregate their audience into a common physical space. For example, films and theater bring people together into a viewing space. Art is typically viewed in common spaces in the company of others. Music is often consumed via a live performance, in a concert setting.

Some rights reserved by xJason.Rogersx

Interestingly, while we now increasingly have de-aggregated the audience for these other cultural forms—thanks to an explosion in technology that has allowed for sophisticated theater and stereo systems to be had at a relatively affordable price in the comfort of our homes—books are moving in the other direction. Long a form consumed in a solitary fashion, books are now aggregating their audiences. But this isn’t entirely new. How have books and stories sometimes aggregated an audience? – In pre-book times, stories were an oral tradition, with an audience of listeners. – Following the advent of a written tradition, scholars discussed important texts in many eras through history, adding and sharing commentaries and marginalia. These were a feature of scholarship in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages and were important to the rediscovery of Classical works by the humanists during the Renaissance (Greenblatt 2011). – Growing out of a salon tradition developed in Europe during the Renaissance, authors would read from their work to small groups. – This tradition of public readings has become a staple in bookstores and certain academic settings, and have evolved in some places to become almost a performance art, including readings in public places and marathon readings of long books. [youtube youtubeurl=”Le0pLSFLkkQ” ][/youtube]

Now, the advent of technology has enabled the aggregation of audience around books like never before. Social networks and online communities have made it trivial for fans of certain books and authors to form ad hoc (or even “official”) communities around the work they care about. A book may have a large distributed  but connected “audience” creating a social reading experience that can manifest in a variety of ways, including:

Some rights reserved by Technipages

– Having easy access to the commentary of others, aggregated and depersonalized as in “most highlighted passages” keyword tagging and other crowdsourcing of metadata. – The proliferation of online communities where vigorous books discussions can occur over email listservs, on message boards, in Facebook groups, in the comment sections of blog posts, and even on Twitter. – There have long been publications writing about and offering critiques of books in a one-to-many fashion, but many of those same publications, now online, have tools like comment sections that allow their readers to congregate and join the discussion. – The creation and sharing and swapping of fanfiction (which interestingly is a phenomenon hardly limited to the world of books, with writers commonly riffing on movies, TV shows, and even real-world events and people.)

There is great potential in how publishers and book communities can continue to look for ways to use technology to aggregate audiences around books. What may be missing is an open-source venue to facilitate and house these communities. It should be simple for readers to easily find and interact with the aura of information and reaction that may surround any book. Each book has the potential to be a mini-community of its own.

Performing the Book


As a scholar, I’ve long been inspired by Julio Cortazar’s comments that great writing is like Jazz—improvised, in the moment or “the take” (Tebeau 2011). The best public history and digital humanities, I’ve argued, are performative, like Cortazar’s best writing—like the best books.

Of course, books are performative—written, read, engaged—but that quality is rarely discussed when we mull the future of the book, with our focus being mostly on form, publishing, and preservation. As digital technologies have exploded publishing, they’re allowing us to recognize (once again) the performative aspects of the book as a knowledge system.

Digital technology, especially the emergence of mobile technologies and cloud computing, mean that books can now be performed—produced, experienced, and engaged—more fluidly and in more places. Of course, we could always read and annotate our dog-eared edition of Ulysses while walking the streets of Dublin, drinking in a local pub. But, now we can “read” Ulysses hyper-textually in Dublin (or in a pub anywhere) with comments and annotation, as well as video, audio, and other media expressions. We can fully experience literature.

As digital innovation has democratized writing, it also now allows communities to not just experience literature, but also to produce it. This production occurs in multiple contexts, with producers building communities through open-source technologies that publish in a variety of fashions: aggregation, multimedia, micro-blogging, long-form journalism, and mash-up. The work has redefined narrative and storytelling, and built communities of professionals, experts, amateurs, and crowds. These communities not only engage story and narrative, they transform text through their engagement. This is conceptually apparent in crowdsourced projects, annotation, and social media sharing.

Additionally, the emergence of smartphones (and now tablets) has allowed (coupled with cloud computing) for new publishing forms to become part of and to engage the physical landscape. Indeed, locative media allows us to explore narrative and stories in place. The landscape becomes hypertextual because it allows us to connect a book—or, for that matter, multiple books, annotations, links, and media—to a particular geography, structure, and physical context. That landscape moves from the object of narrative to part of the text itself. It evokes space, identity, landscape; it helps us individually and collectively to remake “place.” Perhaps more importantly, for us, the book becomes a space of play, a play space, a place of itself.

In accentuating longstanding qualities of books—their fluidity and interactivity and portability—the digital has reemphasized books as performative. Digital knowledge systems and the future of publishing books demand that we engage the dynamism of books as living performances.

cross-posted at urbanhumanist