This week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an academic seminar discussing the book in the past, present and potential future. Whilst some people may find that description about as dry as the desert in a particularly hot summer, for the bibliophile it was an incredibly interesting event that provided wide and lively discussion.
The seminar was organised by a new platform – Ambient Literature – which is organised between Bath Spa University, the University of the West of England and the University of Birmingham, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Taken from the website, Ambient Literature:
is focused on the study of emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices in order to create robust and evocative experiences for readers.
The Make a Book seminar was the first for the project, to be followed by several more in the new year. Attendees included writers, publishers, academics and students, all wishing to share ideas on what the book and the reading experience as a whole was once, is now, and may be in the future.
The first speaker was Dr Edmund King, and the view of reading and books from a historical perspective. Much of Dr King’s presentation touched on the classic ideals of reading as a pastime and the opinions of books and novels from the intellectuals and idealists of previous years. His discoveries led to some humorous moments – because of course reading is a debasement of moral standards!
Next was author and creative writing tutor and academic, Maggie Gee. She looked to the present of reading and books, both intrigued and horrified by the apparent lack of understanding in the world of the importance and value of the written word. She stated that literature ‘is simply the placing of the right words in the right order.’ and I’m not sure I’ve heard a more accurate a description for so intangible and esoteric a thing. Through her talk, it was clear she embraces the reading experience as one for the individual and for the masses – a point I will come back to later.
Finally, Dr Alice Bell looked to the future and the concept of post-digital. Coming at this from both an aesthetic and epochal point of view, Dr Bell presented the idea that in the post-digital world we are entering, storytelling is both fully integrating and completely shunning digital technologies. Of course there was great discussion on the power of new AR and VR tech in storytelling, as well as looking at the visual art interactions with the written word. What was perhaps most profound from Dr Bell’s presentation was the shift of our ideas of ‘reading’ to that of pure ‘narrative’. Are we becoming a world in which the narrative itself is more important than the structure it comes in? Is reading itself an outdated mode of discovering stories? Who knows; not us.
What became very interesting to me on the drive back from this seminar was the balance between the digital experimentation and embrace so advocated by the people in the room and the practicalities of the publishing and commercial market. As someone attempting to enter the trade publishing world specifically, I’ve seen and heard many uncertain of the advantages of integration with digital technology, both from a practical and a commercial standpoint.
How much money can one actually get from these kinds of publication? How many people want them?
Book apps and digital platforms for stories – such as Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia – have the right idea in terms of integration with digital mediums, and yet there is a sense of defeat about them. The ideas and innovations are surfacing, but there’s still a reticence, a concern that the digital format isn’t one the industry is firmly behind. Events like the Bookeseller’s FutureBook Conference is a great thing, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s enough. Figures are still very firmly angled towards the print market and with the current rise in successful independent book retailers, that isn’t going to change any time soon.
I wonder if perhaps the publishing industry is coming at it from the wrong angle.
Let’s look to the concept of reading, the book and narrative. As I mentioned with Dr Bell on the future and post-digital, is this lack of full digital support because publishers still view the book as the book, the novel as the novel, etc.? If they were to deconstruct this idea and strip it back to the concept of ‘narrative’ is that where the true innovation can come in? The videogame market is booming, as are audiobooks. Both these mediums directly connect to the audience through ancient storytelling techniques of oration and interactive theatre. The question of whether the next age of reading is post-digital might actually be a combination of ancient ideas and advanced technological platforms.
Publishers also need to remember that reading is an intimate experience. Stories are chosen by a series of specifications that are unique to everyone who reads, and so when a reader enters a book they are embracing the individual nature of the text that appeals specifically to them. They may not come out of it at the end feeling that way, but that’s how they go into it. Can publishing really expect everyone to love the same book at the same time? Is it really the platform that will change people’s minds about whether they want to read something? No. Of course not. People couldn’t give two hoots about platform if it’s a book they do want/don’t want to read.
Therefore, we once again return to the question of what is a book exactly. Or, perhaps more accurately, what is it that makes the reading experience? That is the more pertinent question, and one that a room full of incredibly interesting book people couldn’t quite find the answer to…