READ ON: LITERARY TEXTS IN 2014
I wrote this in February for the Solothurn Festival in Switzerland. My beautiful grandsons, Vidar and Atlas, were born in Stockholm on March 18th!
I’m writing this as my son and his partner prepare for the birth of identical twins. What will those two be reading and writing in twenty years time?
I believe that by 2034 readers will have forgotten all the strange arguments about what real books were supposed to be made of.
Who cares for long about the debates over scrolls versus codex, vinyl versus CD, VHS versus Betamax? What matters in hindsight is always the quality of the words, music and pictures, what they were trying to say, who made and watched them, how they were financed and critiqued.
The twins will grow up expecting stories on tablets, mobiles and paper books too; stories to touch with moving illustrations, images triggered by the eye passing over them; transmedia adventures mingling fantasy lands with the real world; stories you talk to and which shape themselves differently each time you look at them; stories for whatever i-gadgets come along – hologrammatical? Multisensory? 3D printer compatible? Most importantly they’ll need to be critical readers, able to spot quality and avoid rubbish on whatever new platform it’s delivered.
As a judge for the Bologna Ragazzi Digital Prize for the past three years, I’ve already seen some beautiful children’s book apps, inventive and beautifully rendered, and many awful ones too. Innovation doesn’t guarantee artistic quality.
Will the twins be using the latest technology to consume another clapped out update of Superman? Probably. Will great works of literature and other media be preserved and revisited? Certainly, though it's always hard to predict which will survive the test of time to be seen as classics – Anna Karenina? Faust? Harry Potter? The Wire…?
The twins will also be enjoying the work of new artists and storytellers whose genius springs from the affordances of the media they learn to think and dream with.
Our concept of literature has been shaped around the book and defined by the limitations of print technology. How many pages can be glued together, stored and displayed at what unit cost? Now the text can take whatever shape it likes online, illuminated by digital means.
When my son was a baby I was writing on a typewriter and posting articles to a newspaper which typeset and printed them on paper to sell in shops. That once essential production process will be long gone.
The big change is that we’re all amplified authors now, sharing our words naturally and digitally, with friends and then a widening circle of readers via social media, blogging, self publishing and possibly involving professional intermediaries, for instance publishing companies, but writers won’t need publishers in the way we once did.
Publishers certainly won’t be able to define what is or isn’t worthy of being considered ‘real literature’; online everyone has the right and the ability to share their words for free, but also responsible for our own quality control. We are nearlywriters, deciding for ourselves when work is cooked enough to share. The fear readers have of being submerged in a mass of bad writing is a hangover from the age of print. The web doesn't involve stacks of paper on groaning shelves. In cyberspace, armed with a good search engine, the reader can seek out what they want without worrying about the rest.
2014 is the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web and a time to recognise how revolutionary an invention it was and is: a virtual place where all can share their words (nearly) for free; fundamentally a better container for ideas than the printed page. Actually our laptops and digital network had supplanted print and libraries well before e-books and apps were invented as a way to sell publishers’ wares online.
And as we’ve come to make and consume culture on digital devices where text, sound and picture all have their place, there’s already less need to define what is movie, web, app, i-Hologram or book. What about the websites we use regularly: do we ever bother to think which ones are closer to books or TV programmes in format? No. They’re websites.
We don’t require libraries or bookshops to locate and buy or borrow digital texts. What we will continue to need more than ever are public places to meet, mingle, think, read and make together.
Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College Library and a founder of community hack spaces, recently proposed on BBC Radio 4 that more important than public libraries are shared workshops for making things. I believe we need new community spaces for writers and readers which aren’t defined by their role as storehouses but as workshops of the imagination.
Readers and writers will expect to be part of a community, online and off, where they can seek out collaborators and advisors and friends to help them realise their creative projects and further their personal studies. These spaces – Unlibraries? Nearlyversities? – will be flexible, based around the needs of their users as they plan their own journeys through information and imagination.
Similarly I see major publishing houses being replaced by smaller production companies providing editorial, design, technical, legal and marketing skills, but able to tailor their services and business plans to the requirements of each project. The monoliths of global distribution such as Google, Apple and Amazon may be inevitable but they must be accountable, transparent - and taxable. These giant beasts may fall and new ones arise in their place over time; who predicted twenty years ago that a search engine would become the most powerful company on Earth? In twenty years time some tiny start up now will be ruling the corporate world.
We will certainly continue to see digitised texts being printed out on paper and bound. The paper book is the souvenir of the reading experience and lately we’ve seen a flowering of beautiful book design.
We will always want lovely objects around us that express who are.
I expect breakthroughs in new forms of giftable literature shortly: like shops selling short runs of pamphlets of new writing and classic texts, customised for each reader and sold alongside foodstuffs and ornaments - but always with a code providing access to the digital text too.
I envisage a future in which a new literary work begins with a creative idea, a plan for its development defining what media it should include and what kind of readership it requires with what level of engagement. From the answers to those questions grows an architecture for the piece which might end up involving a live event, a transmedia experience, an app to play with on your i-Whatevernext or, yes, a book printed on recycled paper.
The big question is whether our grandchildren will need stories in quite the same way in twenty years time. Today we’re bombarded with dramatic narratives on TV and film though our lives become less linear, more connected and virtual. Will we ever lose interest in tales with beginnings, middles and ends? Will we ever say, “I really don’t care who did it, whether they fall in love/fight/die.”?
I certainly predict a lot more transmedia storytelling, narrated across different platforms, building a community of interest around its characters and themes, incorporating live and online events, game play elements and active engagement with individual readers. What started out as little more than a trendy form of viral advertising is growing into a mature, serious art form. Texts will be written collaboratively by groups of makers from different artforms setting their own parameters for how they define the boundaries of their work and terms of engagement for consuming it.
I see the writer of the future as a Shaman, making their way through a landscape both real and virtual, creating magic using whatever elements they need to help us transcend our everyday lives and go to exciting, challenging and imaginary places.
What will we read these creations on? The tablet is what those interested in the digital future of the book had really been waiting for: a pleasurable device with which to curl up in bed and enjoy literary works that could, if their authors wish, include text alongside sound, images, video and opportunities to write back to the book too. On the iPad and its imitators literature can spread its wings and fly up above the confines of the printed page. Perhaps something better will come along. Perhaps we’ll plug stories directly into our brains. And perhaps consumers will after all demand a return to text printed on paper and glued down the side.
I do guarantee that in 2034 there will be immense nostalgia – not for the book but for whatever device is by then dropping out of production. People will wax lyrical about its unique qualities and how the world will be poorer without it, and others will fume about whatever Big New Thing has been unveiled and how it will brainwash the young and bring about the death of culture as we know it. But our culture - and our grandchildren - will be more resilient than that.
- Chris Meade 2014