Wednesday, 29 April 2009

blake society event

Thanks to Tim Heath and the Blake Society for inviting us to talk about Songs of Imagination and Digitisation last night - and thanks to Tim Wright, Lisa Gee and Toni Le Busque for joining me to show their contributions.

Monday, 27 April 2009


Noteboek from Evelien Lohbeck on Vimeo.

Tim Wright led me to this delight by Evelien Lohbeck.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Blake Society event

Songs of Innocence and Digitisation
This event takes place on: Tuesday 28 April 2009 | 7:30 pm to 9:00 pm

7.30 Tuesday 28 April 2009
City of Westminster Archives Centre,
10 St. Ann’s Street, London SW1P 2DE

Songs of Innocence and Digitisation: A digital tour by Chris Meade

Chris Meade, Director of if:book London, a new charity exploring the future of the book in the digital age, gives a guided tour through this new on-line anthology of digital literature and art. He will lead a discussion about the potential of new media for readers and writers, joined by some of the contributors to this project - itself inspired by Blake’s commitment to the book and its future. What would Blake make of the e-book and the blog? Hear about a London walk with digital visions, a Blake netbook with Twitterfeed, a Tyger website that fades when you look at it … & more.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

book fair enough

I'll write up other thoughts on this year's London Book Fair shortly, but for now here's the article I wrote for the Bookseller's book fair daily, which appeared yesterday. It's based on the presentation I made at the sunday seminar on the digital publishing scene in the USA where it was fascinating to hear upbeat words from Lexcycle, producers of the Stanza application for iPhones and Daily Lit who send books in episodes to your email. Their freshness of approach contrasts dramatically with all those publishing liners struggling to turn themselves round in these stormy seas.

Just as I was leaving yesterday after some very exciting conversations about potential projects, I came across the stand of, a publisher of books with big round squishy covers to look like baseballs, coca cola signs, Beatles drum heads etc. The guy on the stand then showed me the demo of his next line: a single title e-reader which will retail at the same price as a paper book. It's the missing link: the ebook with none of the advantages of being digital. Except I can imagine it being hugely popular for a while with those who want to give screen reading a try.

Here's my article, a re-statement of familiar themes from this blog, but with some extra bits.


Will it be the Kindle or the Sony Reader or the iRex or the iTouch or the iWash (that’s the one you can read in the bath) which catches on as the reading device of
the future? A far more interesting question is what will be reading on it.

2008 was the year of umpteen editions of Frankenstein and a clutch of other popular classics reformatted for every new format going. I read The Time Machine and Sherlock Holmes on my iTouch on holiday, then Anna Karenina on my Sony Reader. This reminded me that a book isn’t primarily an object, but an experience which happens deep inside us, the paperback or laptop simply the means by which it’s ingested.

Yes, the codex is still, as they say, a neat piece of kit, but it really does have its limitations; you can't write comments in the margin to be read and added to by other readers around the world, like you can on, where eight readers conversed together as they read Lessing’s masterpiece online; you can't find new friends in a novel or join in the story, though you can in the online communities of fan fiction and Alternate Reality games ; you can’t write bits of a paper book yourself, or find that the beginning has been rewritten by the time you reach the end, as you could in the creative chaos of the wiki-novel One Million Penguins. A paper book won't include moving pictures, a soundtrack, animated text, or links directly to other texts and places.

But current e-books are drab text on the grey, e-inked page, publishers cautious of radical departures in cash strapped times despite a rich history of experimentation in digital literature, from the first hypertext poetry to Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice and the recently lauded We’re still at the beginning of new literary and cultural forms, and the trade needs to attend to seeking out and nurturing the Austens / Joyces / Mozarts / Fellinis / Dylans of the digital who will seize on these new forms as their natural canvas, finding the perfect blend of constraints and attributes to help them express a compelling personal vision and make a masterpiece and/or a bestseller.

This is the first networked recession. Previous downturns cast workers onto the scrap heap of history, now the unemployed may be broke, but they can still keep in touch with colleagues on Facebook, google information about their field of interest and Tweet and blog their opinions to all and sundry. As long as you can afford wi-fi and a laptop there's a free library online for us all to savour in the time we gain in exchange for loss of wages. The bad news is you may be robbed of a job by what's free on the web, but once robbed of it, there's lots to do for free. A good time for new, grass roots ventures in storytelling and the growth of a dynamic and artistically subtle collaborative culture.

In September 2007 I set up if:book London, a small think and do tank, inspired by the Institute for the Future of the Book, founded in New York by longstanding digital publisher Bob Stein.

We’ve just launched which celebrates William Blake, a radical, self publishing, multimedia visionary, in a digitally illuminated form. As the chair of the Blake Society Tim Heath says (out loud) in the book, “Blake was always using new technologies, often abusing technologies, not for the sake of an interest in the technology per se, but what he could use it for. He believed that, rather like learning a language… if you speak a different language maybe you ask different questions. And the language of the digital age is one that Blake would have pursued.”

It’s strange that it’s taken so long for writers to want to create in this way, given that so many of us sit at machines that make it possible to mix film, sound, links and text more easily than it once was to tippex out misprints. Technologists have imported literary terms into the digital space, making bookshelves, netbooks, facebooks and bookmarks; it’s time for writers to stop harping back and start exploring the real potential of digital to bring words alive, and in so doing address their realistic concerns.

Future generations will read and write this way, people say, but actually we do now: google this, watch that, listen to this, talk into this – then go to bed for a couple of minutes reading before our heads hit the pillows.

After years working to promote literature as CEO of Booktrust and the Poetry Society, I now believe that there is more chance of keeping the reading habit a vital part of our cultural life if people are able to do their fiction on the same console they do their other stuff on. I simply don’t believe that most of those people who tell me so vehemently how much they prefer pages to screen actually spend their evenings leafing through tomes. The book has already been pushed out of the lounge and sent up to bed.

if:book’s education project The Motfothotbook involves a curator from the 3rd millennium who sends back ‘litch bits’ via a flatpack time machine. These pieces of literature include animated Gawain, extracts from Darwin’s Origin of the Species recited in Second Life, and stories of the future commissioned from living writers such as Cory Doctorow, Naomi Alderman and Jacob Polley, imagining what literature might look like over the next few hundred years. The project is being piloted now and evidence so far suggests it appeals to those Year 8 students who aren’t naturally drawn to reading, and engages them with rich, complex language before they can jump to conclusions about it.

Next we’re launching the if:so press, a production house for transliterate reading experiences which unfold in real time. That may sound weirdly futuristic, but it’s bookgroups which have shaped a new concept of reading as a shared experience, dealing with one book per month, culminating in food and wide-ranging conversations. We’re wondering how to curate some new kinds of writing to be shared in this way. You want to experience one? If so press here… Oh, but of course you can’t - this is printed on paper.

Friday, 10 April 2009


lettering found in paris the other weekend

Wednesday, 8 April 2009


Bill Thompson mentions Songs of Im&Dig on his excellent blog today:

Songs of Imagination and Digitisation has been nicely reviewed here by the Blake Archive.

Here's the article:

if:book just published the long-anticipated Songs of Imagination and Digitisation, “an illuminated book for the digital age.” On the surface, this digital illuminated book looks (and functions) much like a book: it has covers, a (hyperlinked) table of contents, and turning pages.

picture-1This book, however, is also not a book. It does contain text (some of Blake’s short pieces, personal responses to Blake’s work, and new poems and prose by modern writers), but it also uses the book page to frame moving images. Video clips include readings of Blake by Toby Jones and interviews with Chris Meade (the director of if:book), Tim Heath (Chair of the Blake Society), writer Lisa Gee, new media writer Tim Wright, Emma Crewe (director of Child Hope), Sasha Hoare (film maker), and various members of the public. Pages of this digital illuminated book are also linked to other projects and videos — like Lisa Gee’s biography of Blake’s patron, William Hayley; Blake Walks; Blake’s Netbook; and Save the Tyger.

Several commentators mention Blake’s relationship to the new media of his day, and imagine his role within the context of digital media and the internet. Blake’s interest in new forms of media, and new forms of books, make him a perfect figure for this sort of thought-game. Pushing the page to include animated text and moving images naturally extends Blake’s experiments with text and image. The idea of expanding (exploding?) the book to include multimedia elements also reminds me of Zak Nelson’s design for a “new kind of book” (via Web Ink Now).

Nelson’s layout is in response to “a new kind of literacy,” that is, a digital literacy informed by reading websites:

newbooklmodel…people are becoming more literate in reading websites, and that neural reconfiguration may well be affecting how traditional books are read and sold (or, unsold as the case may be).

While it’s easy to imagine future books as digital extensions of the codex form, our new digital literacy might in fact more closely resemble ancient practices: reading scrolls. As Lev Manovich observes in The Language of New Media, “scrolling through the contents of a computer window or a World Wide Webpage has more in common with unrolling than it does with turning the pages of a modern book” (75). To me, one of the significant differences between the scrolling of online sources and the turning pages of the book form has to do with our relationship to information, how it is framed and how we can navigate it–whether we access frames of information sequentially, or whether we can scroll hastily to the end for a visual experience with information that is more “all at once.” While obviously bookish, Songs of Imagination and Digitisation does contain a scrolling page; readers’ comments answering the question “Where do you think Blake lives now?”

As a digital illuminated book, Songs of Imagination and Digitisation is an interesting hybrid of book and non-book. It holds on to the borders and sequential linearity of the book–each page contains a single object (either video clip or page of text), and you can only see one page (or set of facing pages) at a time. But it also spreads out into other sites, Blakean projects, and videos. It is is both familiar and strange, and I can’t wait to see what it does next.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

rooms people feelings places

Kate Pullinger

I'm writing this live from the audience at The Readers Voice, a conference for book groups in Oxford where I've just been speaking about the e-future. Last night's panel with Kate Pullinger and Brian Appleyard felt fulsome and stretching, though slightly intimidating to have Philip Pullman in the audience - I wonder what he made of it. According to Toni he kept shaking his head.


Back home now.

Talking about digital issues in relation to bookgroups highlights how they've transformed reading into a time-specific, transliterate, shared experience for many people. Our plans to produce a different kind of reading experience should work well in that setting, though there will be resistence I'm sure to digital literature.

Attending an inspirational poetry workshop with Casi Dylan of the Reader Organisation which runs reading out loud sessions with all kinds of groups, I was struck by how liberating it is to be gathered together with others for unusual reasons.

Our if so flo seminar for on May 1st is now fully booked but we're planning more if:book salons soon, including a day long event 'round our house' and featuring Cindy Oswin's amazing Salon with Getrude Stein. Watch this space for details.

Finally, I must mention an amazing, moving and unconnected coincidence: sitting down for breakfast at Jesus College where the event was held, I started talking to a man beside me who looked vaguely familiar. When he mentioned having been a GP in Sheffield I recognised him: "You're the man who saved my son's life twenty four years ago." It was Doctor Greaves who rushed Joe to hospital with us when we found our six month old baby collapsed in his cot one morning. It was a pleasure to be able to thank him again after all this time.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


I thought I'd bump into lots of people I knew at the launch party of WIRED UK at Skylon at the South Bank Centre last night, but no. This throng was from a different set of strands of the interweb from where all those people who seem to be at 'everything' seem to be. I saw a Hon brother or two in the distance, but theirs were the only familiar faces. I met a friendly popular science writer called John Emsley who spotted me looking as lost as he, and someone very big in fragrances, then played with a gizmo like a giant iTouch screen supplied by a company called Volume, picked up my cool black goody bag and headed home to find that if:book's Songs of Imagination & Digitisation, launched tomorrow, is featured on page 92 of the first issue - listed as one of 10 cultural bites for May:

"In another world, William Blake could well have been a blogger. Taking its cue from his innate distrust of systems and their limitations, the literary think-tank if:book is exploding the confines of print to create a 'netbook' based around the works of the poet.. the project aims to emulate Blake's own profound spirit of innovation."

...Meanwhile Lisa Gee has just found this plug for us in the Wall Street Journal's online guide to 2009.