Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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What the heck is a VOOK?

What the heck is a VOOK?

It’s been all the buzz in the publishing industry lately. Apparently (and I haven’t seen it yet) it’s a digital book with video. The books are mostly short, with fiction and non-fiction titles including a couple written by bestselling authors specifically for the new technology.

We’ve come a long way from Gutenberg’s machine.

This is a Vook.

This is a Vook.

The Vook is just one of what promises to be a whole slew of new technologies that the publishing world is trying in an attempt to make books sexier, more accessible and appealing to the digitized world.

But what are all these enhancements really adding to the reading experience?

I remember when reading required no more electricity than it took to power a light bulb; and the only sounds it made, besides my own breathing, were the voices of the characters in my head. I relish that silence and the simplicity of reading. So perhaps I’m in no position to judge.

Perhaps the issue now is to adjust our concept of the activity we call “reading” in the first place. Is it still reading when it talks and moves? Or is it some new form of entertainment? When television was first developed, they came up with a whole new word to describe it. It was entirely different from theater and movies. So is this Vook a variation on a theme or some new species? Someone please enlighten me.

And, speaking as a creator of stories using only words, how do individuals create for this new technological entity? It’s no longer the work of a single-minded writer. A Vook, or any other digitally enhanced version of a book, requires a team with digital expertise, expensive equipment, a cast of actors and, most importantly, a budget. The beauty of writing for me has been (among other things) that I could go open my .doc file or a spiral-bound notebook anytime and anywhere I liked, and simply go to work. I could do it all by myself, hour after hour indulging my imagination; and when I was finished, I had created an entire world.

In this rapidly changing literary landscape, how long will that last? At the most basic level, it feels to me like an inalienable right for one person to ink their innermost imaginings onto a page using no more specialized knowledge than good basic writing skills, time, practice and sheer determination.

But perhaps my questions are moot. As technology has a tendency to become rapidly user-friendly, I can easily imagine a not-too-far-away future when all our kids will be making Vooks on their laptops during recess. But for now, for me, the singular experience of self-expression that writing has been seems under threat of extinction.

If I’m a dinosaur, then so be it. (May future readers love my words as well as my kids love the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History!)


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The Evolutionary Invention

We’re probably all familiar with Marshall McLuhan‘s phrase “the medium is the message”. McLuhan writes that the medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action”. In the world of creative writing and journalism, we’re seeing that more clearly every day. Words have migrated from print to screen, and with that shift have come new forms of communication, both more free and more wild. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter tweets and more have completely transformed journalism, knowledge transfer, social interaction and even politics.

Increasingly the world of creative writing is being affected by this shift. Digital readers like the Kindle and Sony Reader are becoming more commonplace. I believe the economic pressures on publishing will eventually force the full adoption of print-on-demand and other virtual solutions.

Meanwhile creative writers are experimenting with new online forms: serialized stories told in blog format in 350 word bites or, even more dramatic, cellphone novels and “Twitter fiction” in which each entry is only 140 characters long! (See “Call me Ishmael. The end.” by Barry Yourgrau on Salon.com.)

If a book bears the power to transform, then what about a computer?

If a book bears the power to transform, then what about a computer?

I confront this truth every day in my own writing. Even from the start, when I was toying with short stories, I realized that writing was much easier on a computer. As I grew to take my work more seriously, I questioned how I could write at all without the ease of revising and saving countless drafts. It’s a strange thought for someone who wrote long hand in journals and notebooks for years. I have a box of them in my basement, representing mostly early hopeless attempts that never quite got finished. Somehow the flow of typing on a computer without worries about making mistakes freed me to create in ways that the thick slog of pen and paper or an old, clunky typewriter never had.

But as I’ve progressed, I’ve also noticed a downside to that freedom. Though I compose mostly on computer, I end up editing in hard copy. Somehow the words simply look different in print, even when I change my page view to “Print Layout”. My rhythms change in hard copy; my scenes that had been rich online read more flatly, or sometimes they seem overlong or over the top. I’ve come to rely on a hearty stack of pages for final editing, much to my environmentalist soul’s chagrin.

What am I seeing that wasn’t there before, when all the words remain exactly the same? It’s Marshall McLuhan’s message embodied – the medium does matter, innately and inextricably.

I found this article on the topic particularly intriguing: “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson. It is a commentary on “The Gutenberg Elegies” by Sven Birkerts that explores, as Stephenson writes, “the relationship between a reader and an imaginative text at a time when serious literature is increasingly marginalized by the communications technologies that are transforming mass media and mass culture.” Both article and book were written in the mid-1990s. They are a fascinating time capsule of the world that was.

We’re now living increasingly in the world as it has become, a world where the written world is less frequently printed, less frequently held in hand. The written word is less private, more public, more virtual, more immediate, more dynamic, and yet more ephemeral. How we process information online – where we go in our minds and souls – is immediately in question. Is it possible, both as writers and readers, to descend into that quiet place inside a story as we once did tucked into a comfortable chair with a book? How difficult is it for any of us to avoid checking our email or going online while we’re in the midst of writing? Are we able to escape, or has our attention span and our time been so truncated that the experience of depth and perception is getting more and more elusive? It reminds me of another article I shared with some of you last year, also from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr.

Overall my question is: what precisely is this transformation and where will it lead us? I’m fascinated by these new fiction forms that are growing like viruses online. Some I’ve barely peeked at; others I haven’t begun to explore; and some honestly, I probably don’t want to. I’m the first to admit that I’m a traditionalist, if perhaps not quite a Luddite, about my literary work. I mean – come on – I do write historical fiction about people and cultures where sometimes even writing itself hasn’t been developed!

Still I’m drawn by the urge to trace this strange path, not only to the past, but to the future. It’s evolution in its purest form – as we watch the human mind transformed by human experience. Our own invention is altering culture itself. And culture is perhaps the most inherent aspect of what makes us human.


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The Future of the Book, or To Kindle or Not to Kindle

As we all charge steadily toward perfecting our work on paper, I am continually distracted by repeated reports on the fate of publishing in an increasingly technological world. Amazon’s Kindle is the latest in an extended parade of electronic devices and strategies that are injecting change into the lumbering beast of traditional publishing.

Joanne Kaufman’s recent NY Times article, With Kindle, Can You Tell It’s Proust?, shows just one minor aspect of the inevitable transformation, made more inevitable by these difficult economic times and the diminishing place of the written word in an over-worked and easily distracted society. Her article focuses on the tangible transformation of the glorious object called the book with its power to define us and elicit affinities among impassioned readers. With the physical book’s absorption into the Kindle’s non-descript white tablet, we are obviously losing something that had previously spoken volumes to the observing world.

To Kindle or not to Kindle, that is the question.

To Kindle or not to Kindle, that is the question.

But a more pressing aspect of this transformation is technology’s impact on the business model that sustains literary existence. The obvious economic advantages of print-on-demand and digital technologies are beginning to erode the antiquated strategy of sales and returns that have sustained the publishing industry since the last Great Depression. (Also see Why Ebooks Must Fail.)

Whatever the outcome, the world of books is changing in a not-so-subtle if perhaps physically intangible way. What the future holds for anyone who aims to publish is probably not a book made of paper, ink and a beautifully designed cardboard binding. As to how any of us will make our living in this newly digitized world – well, that’s another conundrum entirely.