"a whole library in a wafer-like form"

The art of tomorrow: books

Kate Pullinger interviewed by Kate Kellaway in The Observer, Sunday 22 February 2009

"This may be the last year in which it is possible to be ebook or mbook (of which more later) illiterate. We in the UK are on the verge of extraordinary changes in the way we read, think about narrative and define the book itself. Already the US and Japan are chapters ahead of us (the UK is a relatively timid, conservative bookworm). This month sees the US launch of Amazon's Kindle 2 (a refined version of the handheld ebook as yet unavailable here) which will eventually make it possible for book victims like me to put down our heavy bags of books and trip lightly into the future with a whole library contained in a wafer-like, wireless form.

Meanwhile, in Japan, mobile phone novels - or mbooks (keitai shosetsu) - have become a publishing sensation. Some are professional novels, downloaded on to mobiles, but more startling are the novels - mainly high school romances - that are actually written on mobiles by nimble-thumbed texters and read by millions of Japanese teenagers. These tend to be written in mini-chapters, in slang, and peppered with emoticons (in which Japan does a nicely diverse line). Could something similar be coming to a very small screen near us?

If you own an Apple iPhone, it already has. Mac's free Stanza application provides access to online booksellers as well as 50,000 free out-of-copyright publications. Andy McNab, prolific SAS man and novelist, has just announced a deal with Research in Motion, the company that produces BlackBerries, to supply them with ebooks which can be read on BlackBerry screens. And Kate Pullinger, a literary novelist who could hardly be less like McNab, also has a project to get mbooks launched over here.

Pullinger is at the vanguard of the UK's digital movement. She is a reader in new media at De Montfort University and has since 2001 been developing new forms of narrative online. She finds the internet ideal for creativity because it is "impersonal and strangely intimate at the same time". But she is aware that not everyone shares her convictions. What has to be overcome are the anxieties people have about new media. "People are attached to books for reasons more complicated than a love of reading," Pullinger says. "The dominant fear is that the book will disappear. I think it will always be with us, but not too far in the future it will become a bespoke artefact for people who like books."

People worry about losing the experience of "solitary immersion" in reading, but Pullinger maintains: "Our ideas about what reading is will have to change to keep up with what is going on in a digital culture." She has collaborated on two works that give a taster of the possibilities ahead. They are stylish hybrids that incorporate text, image and sound and should be read in the experimental way in which they were written. The Breathing Wall (thebreathingwall.com) is a full-length narrative using pioneering software by Stefan Schemat called Hyper Trance Fiction Matrix. You put on headphones and a mic which picks up your breathing rate. "The idea is that the more you relax, the deeper you go into the story." It is an exploration of the "physiological" rapport between writer and reader, a way of seeing how the "rhythms of the prose" communicate. Pullinger has a sense of fun (essential for pioneering work) and admits, with a laugh, that The Breathing Wall is "esoteric", adding that for about "50 per cent of people" it does not work at all - they get too tense.

Working on Inanimate Alice, a set of multimedia short stories, with digital artist Chris Joseph (inanimatealice.com), she learned (the hard way) how "light the text has to be", and that "images and music must work together to support the text". She likens it to screenwriting but says: "You have more psychological insight because of the text - in a film, people can't go around saying what they think."

Pullinger believes that the publishing of fiction in this country is in the doldrums, with its "top 100 bestsellers and supermarket discounts", and that it is only a matter of time before there is a tremendous digital breakthrough. And the digital generation will lead the way. Next month if:book (the weblog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, based in New York and London) launches a project aimed at secondary schoolchildren, with 50 multimedia works including an animation of a Shakespeare sonnet and a story by Pullinger set in a future country where there are no words at all. Stories do not come more provocative than this. And the project's teasing title says it all: "The Museum of the History of the Future of the Book."


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