The Chimerist

Posts tagged Ebooks

Chopsticks ($6.99) falls somewhere between a book and an app. It’s a scrapbook “novel” telling the story of a difficult romance between two high school students, published by Razorbill, a Young Readers imprint at Penguin, in both app and print forms. The challenge of assembling this fusion of photography, video, animation, and audio clips was recently recounted in the Wall Street Journal as part of a longer story on the enhanced ebook genre. Chopsticks was held up as an important test case on the viability of the form.

I have my doubts about the inclusion of too much visual material in a text narrative (outside of picture books for young children, that is), but Chopsticks has very little text to begin with. The characters write each other notes and IMs, and there are faux documents from schools and the sanitarium where the character Glory, a piano prodigy, is sequestered for a while. You aren’t told the story, as is the case with prose novels and graphic novels; instead, you have to deduce it from the images and scraps of writing supplied by the authors, Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral. While some of these are fairly straightforward — programs for Glory’s performances and newspaper clippings describing her breakdown at Carnegie Hall — others are winningly subtle: a stack of board games momentarily puzzled me until I realized it was meant to indicate how Glory killed time in the sanitarium.

This element of detective work made Chopsticks much more engaging than I’d expected. I think fiction works in part by eliciting an imaginative investment from its reader. Instead of the access to the characters’ inner selves that prose usually offers, Chopsticks shows us what they look like, what they draw (Frank, Glory’s boyfriend, is an artist), what they pack for a trip, what they scribble in the margins of the books they’re reading. From these clues, the reader is invited to imagine not just what’s happened, but how the two principles feel and think about it.

The only frustration I felt with Chopsticks resulted from the abundance of embedded YouTube clips showing what the characters watched on TV or compiled into the music mix tapes they swap. The Wall Street Journal article explains that this was a strategy to work around the rights nightmares associated with using music and video from copyrighted sources, which is clever, but ultimately not that successful. You can’t listen to the music while looking at the images in Chopsticks and I, personally, didn’t feel much like pausing to watch music videos by the Decembrists or Death Cab for Cutie. But then, I wouldn’t, and the inclusion of the characters’ favorite songs might be more meaningful to the intended audience.

Will I return to Chopsticks, the way I occasionally return to Touch Press’ landmark enhanced version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land? Probably not, but that has more to do with the subject matter than the form. I’d love to see an adult story told this way, with images, videos, and interactive garnishes luring me into a puzzle that offered more mystery and ideas. If the videos advanced the story instead of bringing it to a halt, they might seem less of an interruption. As the WSJ explains, putting something like this together is expensive and complicated, more like making a film than writing, editing and publishing a book. But I hope someone tries it.

Laura Miller

We’re excited to learn of Download the Universe, a new site by Carl Zimmer and fourteen colleagues that’s devoted to science ebooks.

"There’s been a serious gap in this growing ecosystem: a way for people who want to read new ebooks about science to find out about new projects," Zimmer says. "Because science ebooks are so new, they have a way of falling between the cracks. Conventional book reviews aren’t very interested; blogs only sporadically pay attention…. We are fifteen writers and scientists who want to explore this new form. On a regular basis, we’ll be delivering new reviews of ebooks about technology, medicine, natural history, neuroscience, astronomy, and anything else that fits under the comfortably large rubric of science. We also define ebooks generously — everything from a plain-vanilla pdf on an author’s web site to a Kindle Single to an elaborate iPad app. (We will not be reviewing ebooks that are simply digitized versions of print books.)"


Maud Newton

At Salon, Laura praises Skulls by Simon Winchester ($13.99), a newish app from Touch Press, the company responsible for The Elements and the special iPad edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

"The ever-debonair Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, not only wrote the text that accompanies the app’s 300 rotatable images of human and animal skulls (as well as artifacts representing the human head) — he also reads it. The result is informative and thoughtful as well as gorgeous and diverting,” she says. “More, please.”

Maud Newton

I use my iPad for many things, but mainly for reading books, magazines, stories, and essays that happen to be digitized. Most of them are also published on paper; others, like The Atavist’s ”Mother Stranger" or Storyville’s du Maurier reprints, are only available digitally, and are consequently much less expensive to distribute, but could just as easily be read in print. 

For these kinds of publications, the iPad enhances availability but doesn’t particularly change the reading experience itself — except insofar as the lit screen makes it easier to read at night and harder to read in bright sunlight. And that’s fine. When I read, I don’t need bells and whistles; I’m looking for information or to be lost in a story. As Laura wrote recently:

By now, the theory that the novel of the future will be a game has become almost venerable. That’s despite indications that — as the critic and author Tom Bissell pointed out in his book “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” — narrative and interactivity are in fundamental respects incompatible. Where games offer the pleasure of mastery, narrative offers the pleasure of surrender. You can beat “Halo,” but you can’t win “To Kill a Mockingbird”; the notion doesn’t even make sense. A “Hamlet” in which Hamlet can blithely decide to kill his uncle as soon as his father’s ghost tells him to is not “Hamlet,” and, furthermore, not that interesting. Part of the power of that story is its feeling of inevitability, the understanding that each event follows from those preceding it and ultimately derives from the nature of each character.

This potent sense of causality, along with a subtle balance of expectation and surprise, is the great storyteller’s secret weapon.

This fact — that so much of the pleasure of reading fiction lies in surrender, while the pleasure of interactivity is by definition the opposite — is a tension that strikes at the core of this site. Laura and I are readers, first and foremost, and will invariably touch on our reading here. On the other hand, we aren’t going to duplicate the sort of writing about books we do elsewhere simply because we happen to have read an e-galley rather than a bound one.

Maud Newton