Finally, an Enhanced E-Novel That Isn’t Just a Gimmick

What's to come?
Dec. 3 2012 5:33 AM

The Ghost in the Machine

Avant-garde novelist Mark Z. Danielewski is changing the way we read e-books.

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The Chabon video is a real feature in the enhanced e-book edition of his recent novel, Telegraph Avenue, which showcases many of the potential pitfalls in enhancing adult fiction. There’s a playlist of music assembled by the author, excerpts from the audiobook, and an interactive map of Oakland—all of which feel tacked on. Even the original theme song, while charming, impedes the actual process of reading. You have to hang out patiently near the title page to enjoy the three-and-a-half minute tune; otherwise, it stops playing when you flip past the table of contents.

In contrast, The Fifty Year Sword offers a nearly seamless experience. “We didn’t want anything to feel forced,” said Lillian Sullam, a technical specialist who worked closely with Danielewski to create the enhanced e-book. “Because it’s fiction, it needed to be integrated into the overall reading experience without pulling you out of it unnecessarily.”

With Sullam, Danielewski devised special effects that explore his obsession with design—a level of involvement at the digital development level that’s unusual for a writer. (He also helped with the e-book’s haunting original score, which was composed by the classical pianist Christopher O’Riley.) The enhanced e-book’s spooky animated text teases out the movement that’s latent in Danielewski’s language on the printed page and emphasizes fragility, violence, and other emotional textures in the work. In a section that describes a place called “The Valley of Salt,” smears of black slowly come into focus. The words are decipherable for only an instant before they retreat into oblivion. A few pages later, in “The Forest of Falling Notes,” letters begin to drop from the page almost as quickly as you can read.

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These technical feats come across as deceptively simple. “You can read it in under an hour,” Danielewski said. “But it also has a lot of rewards if you’re willing to look more closely.” The enhanced e-book’s Easter eggs actively encourage close reading in a medium where readers rarely linger before swiping their fingers across the screen.

While the fancy effects pioneered by The Fifty Year Sword were expensive to develop, they will pay dividends. In terms of tangibles, there’s the code library that Pantheon’s e-books team has built that will be used not only in the development of House of Leaves (tentatively scheduled for a spring 2013 release), but also in other titles across genres. More importantly, there’s a philosophy behind that code that every bell and whistle should be in service of the story, whether it appears on the page or on an e-reader.

For Danielewski, who initially assumed that the e-book would be a “lesser translation” of its print counterpart, the final product exceeded expectations. “I think there’s a common point between both worlds,” he said. “And then there’s also a point of departure where they each demonstrate their own sort of possibilities.”

As an avant-garde novelist, Danielewski has a knack for spotting those possibilities, even when they’re invisible to most of us. But it’s important to remember that in literature, as in technology, there’s something empty and fleeting in innovation for innovation’s sake. What makes Danielewski’s work so valuable across media is never the idea that it’s new. It’s his delight in demonstrating, time and again, that familiar forms are capacious enough to hold all sorts of weird stuff for which we haven’t yet quite found the words.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Correction, Dec. 4, 2012: This article originally stated that the deluxe edition of The 50 Year Sword was stitched in Nepal. It was stitched with Nepalese binding.

Kim O’Connor is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago.