a digital literary renaissance

This is the text of my article for NEW BOOKS magazine, published this week, which sells to readers and reading groups.

When I told my friends, colleagues and my mum that I was leaving the charity Booktrust to set up a think and do tank looking at the digital future for literature, the response was mostly horror. “But I thought you liked books!” Some scolded me, others pleaded: “But please let me be allowed to keep some books.” As if I was out to single-handedly denude their homes of paper.

Actually I was just fascinated by the changes taking place in publishing as the digital revolution transforms our cultural lives, and keen to try to ensure that these changes benefit lovers of books and reading.

Since the birth of if:book in the autumn of 2008, gadgets like the Sony Reader and Kindle have been much discussed and the message is getting across that e-readers, whether you like them or not, are only another way of consuming what it is we all love: words used to tell stories.

SO what is an E-reader? Well... it’s a handheld device for reading text in digital format (or ebooks), about the size of regular books and using 'e-ink' to simulate traditional print. Instead of turning the page you click a button, the screen goes black for a flicker and the next page emerges. And there’s no back lighting, which makes them easier on the eyes, though no good for using in bed with the lights out.

The device can store hundreds of titles. No, you can’t read them in the bath, (but then paper books dropped into water don’t work very well either do they?), and new things to read can be downloaded – for free from sites like Project Gutenberg if they’re out of copyright, and at various (to my mind too high) prices from publishers, Waterstones, Amazon etc.

The Sony Reader is the gadget that’s most popular in the UK so far. It comes in a faux-leather cover that makes it attractive to lovers of Moleskine notebooks. When I show them mine, I’ve been amazed how quickly sceptics start stroking its cover and desiring one of their own. The iLiad has a larger screen and a keypad for note taking. Amazon’s Kindle hasn’t arrived in Britain yet, but watch this space in the run up to Christmas.

Although the Kindle has wi-fi connectivity so that books can be downloaded on the move and new editions of newspapers etc, can appear there magically (well, not magically - complicatedly digitally), these readers all feel retro, providing less in terms of colour, multimedia and interactivity than we’ve come to expect from a mobile telephone, let alone our laptops. The e-Reader’s limitations may help us focus on the text in question as we don’t have the distraction of emails, tweets and other hoohah to befuddle and distract.

Meanwhile an application called Stanza and others like it allow keen readers to download titles to read on the iPhone and other mobiles. Actually in landscape format Stanza provides a reasonable space for text, and there are some advantages about having one device on which to read, write, watch, take photos… and even make phonecalls sometimes.

Many booklovers seem scared that the book will be destroyed by the electronic reader – but I reckon that the beloved bookgroup has done much more to change the way people read in contemporary society.

What do you like about books? Okay there’s the look and smell and heft of them, but lots of things are nice to hold. Books represent free, independent thought and imagination, stories unravelling in our minds at exactly the speed we choose. Now the arrival of digital readers and ebooks on screen seem to threaten the specialness of books for many. But isn’t it the bookgroup that’s done most to change the public conception of how we read? Once seen as an entirely solo experience, selected from a nearly infinite library of possibilities, savoured at whatever speed in whatever dollops of time we individually choose, now a bookgroup book is
chosen from a relatively small selection of current prizewinners and bestsellers, takes a month to ‘do’ and culminates in a gathering with friends to discuss it.

My first taste of reading a book on my iPhone was a revelation, reminding me that stories aren’t objects but experiences that take place in our minds. Without the reassuring souvenir of the battered paperback as proof of my journey, it dawns on me that a good read is as transient as good food or sex – once it’s done there are only memories.

But look at it another way: what about providing readers with some new kinds of matter to enjoy over a month or so? Sign up to our FICTIONAL STIMULUS at www.futureofthebook.org.uk and you’ll be sent emails leading to animated poetry, interactive stories, introductory videos and even a free gift delivered by what is now called snail mail into your real live hands. All we are saying is give it a chance.

The reassuring presence of novelist Kate Pullinger will lead you through. You’ll find amongst other wonders a poem by Jacob Polley, The Reader, which includes all its drafts flickering before your eyes then settling into place, a story by Naomi Alderman set in a future when trees tell stories too. And www.insearchoflosttim.net is my own attempt at a digital fiction with pages to turn but also videos to watch, songs to listen to and all kinds of animated flourishes produced by the brilliant Toni Le Busque, if:book’s creative director.

if:book has been creating a new kind of illuminated book online inspired by the work of visionary poet William Blake, the kind of personality who would jump at whatever means were available to elaborate and distribute his message, working with them to find what imaginative possibilities they can provide. At a time when so much debate about books is defensive and backward looking, we want to help writers to seize the time and experiment joyfully with the amazing new ways available to tell great stories.

I have nothing against books, or e-Readers either, but what gets my juices flowing is the potential of new media as a means to allow writers and readers create and consume new kinds of literary content.


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