The New Value of Text

There is an increasingly pervasive notion that other forms of media are additive to literature, that they somehow improve it. Because, you know, books are just telling stories, right?

We are witnessing a profound assault on book publishing and literature, on the text itself—not from ebooks, which publishers are slowly, painfully coming around to after a long resistance, or the internet, which is after all entirely made of text—but from applications, “enhanced” books and reductive notions of literary experience. As I’ve written about before, in the context of advertising, publishers’ reactions to new technologies betray a profound lack of confidence in the text itself. We are being distracted by shiny things.

Text lasts. It’s not platform-dependant, you don’t just get it from one source, read it in one place, understand it in one way. It is not dependent on technology: it is what we make technology out of. Code is text, it is the fundamental nature of technology. We’ve been trying for decades, since the advent of hypertext fiction, of media-rich CD-ROMs, to enhance the experience of literature with multimedia. And it has failed, every time.

Yet we are terrified that in the digital age, people are constantly distracted. That they’re shallower, lazier, more dazzled. If they are, then the text is not speaking clearly enough. We are not speaking clearly enough. Like over-stuffed attendees at a dull banquet, the mind wanders. We are terrified that people are dumbing down, and so we provide them with ever dumber entertainment. We sell them ever greater distractions, hoping to dazzle them further.

Literature is an active process: the communication between writer—who wishes to tell the reader something, and imagines that reader in their mind in order to best adapt their writing for their understanding—and reader, who reconstructs and reanimates the text in their own mind. Any other input, audio or video, however pleasurable in certain contexts, diminishes the reader’s capacity for imagination and understanding. All else is distraction. Other—particularly visual—media reduce the bandwidth of the imagination.

“Storytelling” is what we do for children. It is the infantilisation of literature. And while there is much of interest in children’s literature and children’s publishing, to emulate it is to debase literature, and ourselves. (It’s dangerous in science, technology and other non-fiction too: no application or television programme is equal to a well-written, long form text.)

And these reductive notions of literature infect the rest of the body. Contrary to popular thought, everyone is not a publisher. When you hear a publisher say it, it’s even sadder. Publishing is a complex and well established collection of knowledge, competencies and processes, refined over time, practiced under forever difficult circumstances in a frankly indifferent market. Which is not to say that it’s exclusive: the bar to entry has dropped massively, obviously, in the last ten years. But it’s still hard, and hard to do well, and the rewards are still small. Writing something and putting it on the internet is not publishing. Producing an application and getting it into the app store is not publishing. If you think everyone is a publisher, go home now, and come back when you’ve thought about what you do.

In my writing on advertising, I suggested looking to Amazon and Apple as to how to market reading: it’s in the text itself. Amazon in particular are making a killing with the Kindle, they’re eating the publishing business, and they’re doing it by focussing on text. Kindle Singles and related ventures like Byliner and Random House’s Brain Shots take advantage of digital text’s primary advantage: speed. (See the opposing directions of The Guardian’s liveblogs and News International’s The Daily for fundamental understandings and misunderstandings of digital text.)

Added to the velocity of the new text is its sociability, its connectivity. Social reading, whether of the Kindle highlights, Kobo Dashboard, Instapaper, Findings or Readmill flavour, adds depth to the text without diminishing it. When I write about the reading experience, I’m talking about a deep engagement with text, an active, intelligent, two-way conversation between reader and writer.* I am not talking about pretty pictures, sound effects, film clips, or point-and-click “interaction”. 1001 words trump a picture, and books have always been interactive. (There is so much of value in comics, films and games but it is not what book publishers do.)

Finally, the text still requires context. As publishers spin up their digital and print-on-demand backlists, more and more is published with less and less context. These efforts amount to land-grabs and rights-squatting, without adding value. Works without TOCs, indexes, author bios, footnotes. Placing work in context is one of publishers’ primary tasks, stretching out to commissioning introductions, assembling background material, supporting biographies and critical studies. Design belongs here too: good book design, appropriate book design, as important now as it has ever been.

Velocity, depth, breadth. These are the dimensions we can add to books, that are the gifts of a digital age, not gimmicks, glossy presentation and media-catching stunts.

The text works. It stands and speaks for itself. It is not what we need to change.

* Apparently this requires clarification. See below.

I couldn’t agree more. I have started to do most of my writing in plain text (along with Multimarkdown) to future-proof my work. I also think that all this talk of ebooks that incorporate multimedia are fine for some textbooks, but they will never replace the transfer of ideas, stories etc., that is done simply and efficiently via plain old text.

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