Many years ago, a sadistic literature professor of mine suggested James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as a book I might want to read over the summer. He based this judgment on the fact that I hadn’t been altogether repelled — as the rest of the class had — by Samuel Beckett’s experimental novel Watt. He saw potential in me, and I knew it, so I went out and bought FW determined not to let him down.
To say that I was in over my head is an understatement. I should’ve put on a snorkel before I read the first sentence. I’d never felt more stupid… and more taken. In the end, I couldn’t get past page thirty. But even after I’d thrown in the towel, I couldn’t put the book behind me. Years later, I sat down with an annotated edition and made it through to the end. I still didn’t understand a lot of it — many of the annotations needed annotations. But it was one of the great literary joys of my life.
Cut to the present: When I first came up with the idea for my new novel Sloth, I wanted to write a kind of friendlier, slapshtickier Finnegans Wake — a book that would be funny page by page but would carry a subtext in which a different and more complicated story unfolded. The whole would make sense if you happened to be fluent in Dostoevsky, Dickens, Sophocles, Dante, Yeats, Nabokov, Philip Roth, Nathaniel West, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice… as well as Aquinas, Descartes, Martin Buber, Henny Youngman, Mr. Ed and Dr. Seuss. Otherwise, it would just be a strange (but, I hoped, funny) book.
Predictably, Sloth was a nightmare for my agent to sell. Before it was picked up by Greenpoint Press, a six-year-old, not-for-profit press, it was rejected at least twenty-five times. Several editors at commercial houses expressed interest, only to be overruled by colleagues and executive editors. The argument against it was always that the target audience was too narrow to be profitable — undoubtedly true … if you only take into account the print version.
Perhaps, though, Sloth was a more natural fit as an e-book all along. The idea is strange — and certain to unnerve devotees of the printed-page like Lisa Fabrizio. The old paradigm of the electronic edition of a book as a mere reproduction of the print version remains dominant for the time being. But the e-book format has the potential to be much more than a reproduction. How would a book like mine tap that potential?
With optional on-screen annotations.
Sloth consists of journal entries by a nameless narrator in which he recounts his quest to win the heart of a TV exercise girl. But midway through, the journal is interrupted by his best friend Zezel — who breaks into the narrator’s apartment, reads the journal on his computer, and inserts a risqué counter-narrative that lampoons and deconstructs the original. If you turn to page 109 of the print edition of the book, you find Zezel’s first interruption:
“We’re going to die,” she said. “The comet Kohoutek, the planets, even the phases of the moon are unequivocal in this regard.” Thus, we joined. She with the intensity of doom, and I because I am me, and because I like to relate to women in a full and open manner. The warm tides of the Sargasso engulfed me, those dying generations lost amid the mackerel-crowded C. Ever it was: Her expression distracted, her hair gyred by the wind, her face framed against the constellations, she was fixed upon me, fixed beyond me. She was fixed, and then at last she broke. Her very ponderousness heaped out of my hands. She panted. She moaned. She cooed and bayed: Her mind moved upon silence.
Now suppose you encountered the same passage in an electronic edition, and you scrolled through it with a cursor, rather than merely scanning it with your eyes. The following annotations might pop up:
Kohoutek: dubbed the “comet of the century” before its appearance in 1973, and believed by some to herald the end of the world, it proved a dud, even for astronomers.
Phases of the moon: poem by W. B. Yeats in which he lays out the cyclical nature of history, with each cycle containing in it the seeds of the next — thus, a world with no end.
Sargasso: Sea in the North Atlantic often represented in literature and popular culture as a place of irresolvable mystery, here associated obscenely with a woman’s sexuality.
Those dying generations… mackerel-crowded C: See “Sailing to Byzantium” by Yeats, in which he considers the possibility of human immortality through art.
Gyred by the wind: The gyre was the funnel shape invoked by Yeats to symbolize history’s cycles.
Her mind moved upon silence: See “Long Legged Fly” by Yeats which contains the refrain “Like a long-legged fly upon a stream / His mind moves upon silence.”
Again, you wouldn’t have to read the pop-up annotations — which, remember, are prompted by cursor movements. You might decide to ignore the cursor and read the e-book as you would a standard paperback. But Sloth is a novel about wordplay and allusion as much as character and plot, a winking tour of the traditional canon of dead white males as well a satire of postmodern notions such as the death of the author, the de-centered self and the destabilized text. (Yeats, for example, was a practitioner of “automatic writing” in which the text doesn’t derive from the author’s conscious mind; in the case of Sloth, it may be that Zezel’s interruptions are only manifestations of the narrator’s subconscious. Yet the narrator courts the exercise girl by pretending to be Zezel… who writes newspaper columns under the pen name “Mark Goldblatt.”) An electronic version of the book — currently in production — that also served, in effect, as an annotated edition would make Sloth more enjoyable, or at least more accessible, to readers who don’t happen to be literature professors, graduate students or writers themselves. The electronic edition, in short, opens up the book’s target audience from classics junkies to anyone with a fondness for cheap laughs and a passing acquaintance with the Norton Anthology.
Cursor-prompted annotations are one of many changes on the e-book horizon — and perhaps the least dramatic. These changes will necessarily alter the entire calculus that goes into a book’s creation. Consider: We now live in a world in which, for the first time, there are two distinct ways to read: 1) with your eyes alone, and 2) with a cursor. The two ways to read point to two very different reading experiences… and that difference will affect not only how books are acquired and published but also how they are imagined and executed.
The experiential possibilities of an e-book are not limited to the words on the screen. With inevitable hardware advances, there will eventually be suspense novels, for example, with creepy background music and momentary visual effects. As the heroine steps inside the seemingly deserted house, a bass line will pulse through your headset. As you scroll across the words, “She heard a sudden rustling of wind through the tattered curtains,” you’ll hear a rustling. Then, as your pulse quickens, when the villain leaps out from behind the curtains, an animated graphic will emerge from behind the words on the screen to menace you for a split second, then recede.
As unsettling as such innovations may seem, they needn’t encroach on the experience of traditional readers — not even those seduced by the siren song of a Nook, Kindle or iPad. The option of sight reading, of scanning down the page line by line, without using the cursor, will always remain. But the range of new possibilities is sure to impact how writers write; many will write with an e-book specifically in mind. They will become orchestrators as well as wordsmiths — deciding, in the case of Sloth, what to annotate, but, in the future, deciding what to score, what to illustrate and what to animate. The results will be hybrids… not unlike the way today’s graphic novels are hybrids of traditional novels and comic books.
The existence of such hybrid forms will, in turn, drastically affect what gets published. Acquisition editors will have to factor into their decisions not only familiar literary criteria — the words on the page — but also, in the case of e-books, the totality of the experience created by the writer. As a result, commercial publishing houses will have to hire effects editors as well as text editors. It will be a brave new world for book marketers as well. How many potential book buyers have been siphoned off by movies, television and the Internet over the last half century? Marketing departments will perhaps reclaim a portion of those lost audiences with an enhanced sensory experience.
The power of books has always been their intimacy, the exquisite closeness of a story playing itself out inside your head. But the price of that intimacy is cultural literacy and heightened concentration — a price fewer and fewer people have been willing or able to pay. That is the reality. But with pop-up annotations, sounds and sights, the price drops precipitously.
More people will become book lovers. They’ll just love their books in different ways than book lovers did before.