I.

Looking back, I can see now that there were a couple of rather pleasant years after the Kindle first came out, when I could deceive myself into thinking that things wouldn’t change much, fundamentally, for books. Books would lose the paper and go electronic; publishers would get squeezed; bookstores would (sadly) get squeezed; but the basic nature of the book itself, a thing of lots and lots of words strung together and meant to be read in sequence, would not change. The Kindle allows you to read lots and lots words in sequence, and it does a pretty good job of that, and it doesn’t do much else. So, consideration of the future of books boiled down to issues of distribution and pricing (for more on that, this post by Joe Konrath is quite interesting).

Steve Jobs, what have you wrought?

But now we have the iPad. The iPad is good for reading lots and lots of words in sequence, but it’s also good for a lot of other things, and it allows you to jumble all those things together to create something…new. That new thing, what will it be? That’s a question that writers will soon have to start grappling with, but I haven’t seen much grappling out there so far. The best piece I’ve seen on the subject is this article by Tom Chatfield.

One of the items mentioned in Chatfield’s article is an iPad version of Alice in Wonderland, in which the illustrations move as you turn your iPad, you can throw tarts at the Queen, you can hear the dormouse snoring, and so forth and so on. There aren’t a lot of books like this, yet, but surely there will be more soon, and original works will be coming. Will a multimedia extravaganza like that actually add anything to the experience of the book? That remains to be seen. But a lot of great novels have included snippets of other forms — letters, diaries, newspaper articles, poetry, plays. I love the photographs in WGSebald’s novels. Now there is the opportunity to involve other forms as well — music, videos, animations, games. How best to work those in, I’m not sure. But I bet someone will figure it out.

Alice for the iPad by Atomic Antelope

When an art form is disrupted by new technologies, the results can be extraordinary new art. Think of painting after the invention of photography. Think of music after the introduction of electronics. Now, the novel… For the novel, things might soon get awfully interesting.

II.

Another possible direction for the future of the novel is only gestured at by Chatfield’s article, but it’s possibly even more significant. Chatfield finishes his article with some musings from Don DeLillo, and DeLillo says this: “Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customised, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write and read.”

What’s he talking about? My first thought about a novel with the reader as the main character was, well, that’s a video game, or some kind of rarefied Choose Your Own Adventure. But, on reflection, I think DeLillo is saying the opportunities are much larger. Because there is now so much information about a reader in the electronic ether, it ought to be possible for a well-designed algorithm to go out there, gather the data on a reader, and then create a character that is in fact very much like that reader. It could easily figure out where you live, where you went to school, what you like to eat, and what is the name of your dog. But, more than that, if it had access to your e-mails and your Facebook and Twitter postings, it could probably develop a pretty good sense of how you communicate, what gets you angry and what makes you happy, whether you are an introvert or an extrovert — your character. And then that character could be slipped into a storyline.

And why stop there? If the novel has access to your various online accounts, it could not only glean data from them, but also insert things into them. So that, even though you’ve closed the book’s pages midway through, you might be cc’d on an e-mail between two of the book’s characters with some information that adds to the book’s storyline. Characters in the book might begin to appear in your Facebook and Twitter feeds, they might send you YouTube videos or direct you to a new blog post.

You might download a novel one day, and discover that there’s no “book” at all. It exists only in the online world, as a sequence of Facebook postings and Tweets and blogs and YouTubes and e-mails and text messages. Maybe you only observe the story that emerges, from the periphery. Or maybe you’re at the center of it, interacting with the characters — so that it’s like life, except that it’s only online and none of it’s real (“real”). What would that be? Would it be a novel? Or something completely different?

(Cross-posted.)

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