IMAGINATION AND DIGITISATION – article by Chris Meade from The Bookseller, LBF edition, April 2009

Will it be the Kindle or the Sony Reader or the iRex or the iTouch or the iWash (that’s the one you can read in the bath) which catches on as the reading device of the future? A far more interesting question is what will we be reading on it.
2008 was the year of umpteen editions of Frankenstein and a clutch of other popular classics reformatted for every new format going. I read The Time Machine and Sherlock Holmes on my iTouch on holiday, then Anna Karenina on my Sony Reader. Reading like this reminded me that a book isn’t primarily an object, but an experience which happens deep inside us, the paperback or laptop simply the means by which it’s ingested.
Yes, the codex is still, as they say, a neat piece of kit, but it really does have its limitations; you can’t write comments in the margin to be read and added to by other readers around the world, like you can on www.thegoldennotebook.org, where eight readers conversed together as they read Lessing’s masterpiece online; you can’t find new friends in a novel or join in the story, though you can in the online communities of fan fiction and Alternate Reality games ; you can’t write bits of a paper book yourself, or find that the beginning has been rewritten by the time you reach the end, as you could in the creative chaos of the wiki-novel One Million Penguins. A paper book won’t include moving pictures, a soundtrack, animated text, or links directly to other texts and places.
And you may not want to. But what a shame that current e-books are drab text on the grey, e-inked page, publishers cautious of radical departures in cash strapped times despite a rich history of experimentation in digital literature, from the first hypertext poetry to Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice and the recently lauded Wetellstories.co.uk. We’re still at the beginning of new literary and cultural forms, and the trade needs to attend to seeking out and nurturing the Austens / Joyces / Mozarts / Fellinis / Dylans of the digital who will seize on these new forms as their natural canvas, finding the perfect blend of constraints and attributes to help them express a compelling personal vision and make a masterpiece or even a bestseller.
This is the first networked recession. Previous downturns cast workers onto the scrap heap of history, now the unemployed may be broke, but can still keep in touch with colleagues on Facebook, google information about their field of interest, tweeting and blogging their opinions to all and sundry. As long as you can afford wi-fi and a laptop there’s a free library online for us all to savour in the time we gain in exchange for loss of wages. The downturn provides a breeding ground for new, grass roots ventures in storytelling and the growth of a dynamic and artistically subtle collaborative culture.
In September 2007 I set up if:book London, a small think and do tank, inspired by the Institute for the Future of the Book, founded in New York by longstanding digital publisher Bob Stein. We’ve just launched songsofimaginationanddigitisation.net which celebrates William Blake, a radical, self publishing, multimedia visionary, in a digitally illuminated form. As the chair of the Blake Society Tim Heath says (out loud) in the book, “Blake was always using new technologies, often abusing technologies, not for the sake of an interest in the technology per se, but what he could use it for. He believed that, rather like learning a language… if you speak a different language maybe you ask different questions. And the language of the digital age is one that Blake would have pursued.”
It’s strange that it’s taken so long for writers to want to create in this way, given that so many sit at machines on which mixing film, sound, links and text is easier than it once was to tippex out misprints. Technologists have imported literary terms into the digital space, fashioning bookshelves, netbooks, facebooks and bookmarks; it’s time for writers to stop harping back and look at what’s happening now, what use can be made of new tools to bring words to life.
It’s not just future generations who will lead transliterate lives – we’re doing it now: googling this, watching that, listening to this, talking into this – then going to bed to read for a few minutes before our heads hit the pillows. After years working to promote literature as CEO of Booktrust and the Poetry Society, I now believe that there is more chance of keeping the reading habit a vital part of our cultural life if people are able to do their fiction on the same console they do their other stuff on. I simply don’t believe that most of those people who tell me so vehemently they prefer pages to screen actually spend their evenings leafing through tomes. The book has already been pushed out of the front room and sent up to bed.
if:book’s education project The Motfothotbook involves a curator from the 3rd millennium who sends back ‘litch bits’ via a flatpack time machine. These pieces of digital literature include animated Gawain, extracts from Darwin’s Origin of the Species recited in Second Life, and stories of the future commissioned from living writers such as Cory Doctorow, Naomi Alderman and Jacob Polley, imagining what literature might look like over the next thousand years. The project is being piloted now and evidence so far suggests it appeals to those Year 8 students who aren’t naturally drawn to reading, and engages them with rich, complex language before they can jump to conclusions about it.
Next we’re launching the if:so press, a production house for transliterate reading experiences which unfold in real time. That may sound weirdly futuristic, but it’s bookgroups which have shaped a new concept of reading as a shared experience, dealing with one book per month, culminating in food and wide-ranging conversations. We’re wondering how to curate some new kinds of writing to be shared in this way. You want to experience one? If so press here… Oh, but of course you can’t – this is printed on paper.