on short stories and books


Analogous to articles vs. books. Though books they are a-changing, and publishing. I hope for the better. Longtime hunch: online writing is already enriching literary forms and styles–from the infinite variety of the blog-post to the epigrammatic pith of the tweet. 


Gaiman on short stories, and issues with B&N and Amazon.







Stross on how the novel is reshaping.

Integration of text, hypertext and networks of other texts and references and dictionaries and so on, image, sound, video. Footnotes, annotations, talking comments, insert debates between interpretations.

Markup and layering of text: a different league–different dimension–from traditional print scholarly editions. What the good edition has been aspiring to for, errm, its whole existence? The more so when you add in the commentative possibilities.

Hyperlinked hypertexts: Parthonopey project, Rose, etc.; back to the good old parallel-text, of multilingual intertextual Bibles, Erasmus’ parallel text, good scholarly editions. See the lovely 2D Goggles’ iPad version.


The raison d’être of the Eclipse anthologies






Greed and panic at approaching extinction; a need to change so as to survive. Publishers and their problems. But brilliant potential. But money-grubbing: platform specificity, e-books too often rented rather than owned, impossibility of lending out and sharing books (plus comments on them in annotation).

I like Mac. It’s elegant, aesthetic, feels nice, comfortable. I dislike its exclusivity: production methods and ethics (mind you, same is true of all them–a bad bunch); paying a price for beauty, when there’s no sound reason for that not to be available to all (call me a Scandinavian socialist of about 50 years ago if you will); tying iTunes to your library and its mobility; having many glitches in Lion that disrupt compatibility with third-party software, especially open source.

On the reading front, in an ideal world, either a single format or ones that have to be compatible with everything in existence: that would be nice. PDF was supposed to be that universally-usable form (but not the case with PDFs produced from .pages c/o Lion, for instance). HTML still is–so long as simple; but simple too often means mingingly ugly, and I like my text to read attractively and flow.

Mixed bag: I haven’t bought a reading-device, because The Beloved has two and I’ve yet to see one that does everything I want. I’d like the Kindle’s eye-feel and ink, but not its awful buttont; the iPad’s general size and feel; a device for which I could buy texts from everywhere (and read anything else too, inc. HTML); on which I could annotate, and keep my text with its notes (EverNote will do a lot of this, and Pages, to be fair). One single library of everything, just as I have on real live bookshelves. And where I can link texts to whatever dictionaries I want (the OED, the big Robert, the AND, Godefroy, von Wartburg, open-source dictionaries, and any glossaries I’ve put together myself). Plus, why not, for work texts: cross-reference to the Concordance of Medieval Occitan (alas, not online: just on CD-ROM, though with the fiendishly expensive multi-machine version–but not a virtual network). And that expensive Champion one for all of Medieval French lit. Just as I do right now in real life, moving between bookshelves and computer. Add in an element something like Grafton’s book-wheel.

[UPDATE: soon after writing this, I bought a Kindle.

I’ve never looked back.

I use it for reading short story anthologies and longer novels. I actively prefer the Kindle for submersive reading and imaginative escape to another world over a longer continuous period of time. There are also free books on it, lots of Project Gutenberg stuff, a good year or two’s reading-matter in case I get stuck on a desert island (with power) or in a very long traffic-jam.

I also still read collections of short-form prose fiction in printed form and prefer to also have a physically copy of anything that I’ll read more than once. This is mostly I think because while I can read and am happy reading in either form, I like to have certain books physically surrounding me in my favourite central room at home, its heart, where I do my reading on a sofa. That’s treating physical books as different sorts of thing from books’ contents.

I prefer to read verse on paper. But: for actively working on poetry commentary, I use electronic text as I have been since about 2000.


A keyboard: maybe one that pops out and up. Telescopic would do, would be nice to have an image appearing in front of one’s device. A la Minority Report (the movie; ignore that silly little man and most of the plot, I’m thinking these scenes with Amazing Computers From The Future). Maybe we need to wait for graphene. It would be fun if it looked something like an organ keyboard, maybe also with foot-pedals and stops. Mmmm.

A bookish feel: two elements here. The first, the pages and outer cover. A varying matter of taste. I dislike heavy books, solidity, rigid pages, and leather covers. I like my books floppier and friendlier. Battered, used, pre-loved, welcoming. A pleasing font and pleasant text/background contrast–it would be great to get most of my books reprinted more legibly. Pages: prefer ones that bend and turn, that move with my fingers rather than against them. I don’t like them too crisp. I know some do: and part of book-fetishism is often that feel of fresh virginity, bending the pages, physically conquering The Material Text, breaking the spine. Mix of distanced amusement and proper feminist revulsion, sorry M. Derrida…

Some of that can be remedied, is already, with e-reader covers. But the tendency is towards macho businesslike heavy embossed leather. Shudder. I’ve seen too many supposedly feminine-market parallels: embossed patent moc-croc, more seriously in deep rich hues, more often in pink. Multiple shudders. More work required here. Companies helping people to design their own, maybe? Have a wardrobe of reader-covers: for all moods, kinds of text, for curling up on the sofa, or on the bus, or outside in the rain.

Element the second: it’s got to use the hands. Reading isn’t just about eye-brain connections. There’s a physical element. Call it embodied and suchlike if that’s how you perceive the world. I reckon it’s more deeply (and properly scientifically) a need to touch to contact: as you do with a friend. Combined with gestures for communication and understanding, involving pulling something to yourself. And with what happens with fingers: as tools, as mediators with the world, between inside and outside and back again, for feeling the way–from pulling aside branches in a jungle, to tracing a route on a map, to moving through pages.

Turning pages provides a rhythm to reading; quite different from scrolling down online. I remember in courses on web design, being told to keep the length of any page to the approximate length of a screen (tricky, given different screen-sizes); if you get to the end, you start a new page, as with books. That what (little) we know about people reading online suggests that for most, it’s still ideally like reading off a page; reading structured and paced by the 11×8; where the page stays steady and the hands and gaze move. That needs more work: e-readers are also much better than computer screens for vertical orientation, though you could write up script to change the divisions of text so it correspond to the size of screen, and move page accordingly. Or, simply zoom in or out.

Holding a book (or scroll) with two hands gives immediate information on how far you have gone, how much yet to go, roughly where you are in the book. Giving shape and pace to the reading via the changing shape of the book as a whole.

Both elements above work well with the printed book. They could be improved on: with all that is so Medieval about digital text: the Medieval-style multiple-version possibilities of the manuscript codex; making your own codex from favourite works; adding annotations, illustrations, marginal comments and commentary and intertextual references. And rethinking how the page works: it doesn’t have to be a fixed size, but could expand and contract depending on how much information is on it, and to speed up or slow down reading. Orientation could change from one page to another, and relative proportions of a page, from a narrow ribbon to a square. Shape could change, why stick with quadrilaterals? And again, liberation from the practical constraints of binding free the text from the same shape of page every page, as well as size, colour, background, texture. Font and font sizes have been played with off and on for 500-odd years, the sophisticated experiments of Mallarmé and Apollinaire. I’ve seen some beautiful rare fiendishly expensive books that do amazing things with typography, mise en page, paper texture, and so on.

Add smells, where desired. Add audio versions of all that’s in the book: for the blind and other visually-impaired most obviously (and for whom there’s a shamefully small number of decent texts been read aloud), for the ill and bed-ridden, for use on public transport. And for different textures in the commentary, too–to give a sense of different voices to the layers in a text.

Could this–and adding your own experiments and feels and finishes, on all the elements in the paragraph above–not be rendered electronically? Maybe add finger-tip thimble-like coverings, which touch the book and are linked up to your organ-keyboard (heck, add speech commands too)? Save and share them online. Beyond online reviews and the brilliance that is Amazon customer reviews and resulting communities of readers, as you discover new book suggestions through what others looking at the same work(s) have looked at and bought, and then add in the review-element: both to refine your selection and affirm your choice, and to expand your future choices and change the direction of the pattern of your reading. Link all of that, of course, to the ideal e-text, to its networked aspects. Add in readers’ comments in their own copies, add in the tweaks they added (p. 276 works better in Optima when the mood changes, and I also changed that last paragraph into a big eight-pointed star, rotating, changing from white through golds to bright orange, with font size increasing…).

I don’t want to see that tied to, say, Amazon or iTunes. This is something that should be open, open source, universally usable. Not compulsory–that would be mean, and people read in all sorts of ways anyway. But worldwide. Heck, interlink translations to originals and vice-versa. A worldwide web of reading and readers. Combine it with massively cheaper book prices (or: honest prices for e-texts that more accurately reflect the cost of production) and shorter working weeks for lower salaries (to stave off economic and environmental apocalypse). The result: more people reading and talking about reading. Peace on earth and goodwill to all men.

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