The Ghost in the Machine
Avant-garde novelist Mark Z. Danielewski is changing the way we read e-books.
Mark Z. Danielewski
Photo by Emman Montalvan.
Perhaps you’ve heard that reading on an e-reader is different than reading a book. While I can’t say for sure that the “significance of the tactility of reading” began with St. Augustine or that the “meaning of reading lies in the oscillatory rhythms of the opening and closing hand,” I’d like to share a lesson I learned long ago from the residents of Sesame Street: different than does not mean inferior to.
Most e-books are straightforward renderings of their printed counterparts—just words on a screen instead of words on a page. Side by side, the relative values of words on a screen versus words on a page seem clear: Most e-books offer a second-class reading experience. But any reader who has ever had a commute or a vacation or a habitat that can accommodate only so many bookshelves must weigh books’ sensual delights against stone-cold convenience and the instant reward of the one-click buy. It’s a dilemma that plays out, for many of us, on a book-by-book basis.
Increasingly, e-books are winning out. At the moment, e-book sales account for more than 20 percent of dollars that consumers spend on books. Almost all of that market share belongs to the “print mimic”-style e-books. But there’s also an emerging category called enhanced e-books—digital editions with special features like audio and video—that are more than just mimics. Or at least they can be, in the right hands.
Enter novelist Mark Z. Danielewski, who has long been a maverick and an innovator in the world of print. Best known for his strange-looking novel House of Leaves, Danielewski is a designer and a storyteller in equal measure. His use of evocative typography—words that visually reinforce their meaning on the page—leaves readers dazzled, frustrated, or disgusted, depending on the day and their disposition. Only Revolutions, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006, is so unconventional that it includes instructions for how to read it.
“People experiment with the way to present text all the time, but Mark was one of the few authors who I felt really integrated it into the whole story,” said Edward Kastenmeier, who has been Danielewski’s editor since he discovered the writer in the late 1990s. “The way he’s telling the story is as important as the story. The two work hand-in-hand to accomplish an effect.”
Pantheon, Danielewski’s publisher, has always tried to accommodate and nurture his vision. House of Leaves, which was rejected by more than 30 publishers before it found a home, required Pantheon to forsake its normal production process, with Danielewski himself setting up shop on the premises to oversee the typesetting.
The author was similarly involved in the development of his latest feat of formatting, The Fifty Year Sword, a ghost story for adults. There are two pulp versions: the deluxe limited edition, with Nepalese binding in a handsome box, and the standard edition, a beautiful object in its own right.* Pantheon—an imprint of the design-conscious publisher Alfred A. Knopf—demonstrated a similar commitment to craftsmanship with the enhanced e-book edition of The Fifty Year Sword, a key project in the division’s strategic development plan and a category changer in the realm of digitized adult fiction.
Enhanced e-books are rare in publishing because they’re expensive to produce, and the audience is, for the moment, pretty limited. (Some enhanced e-books, including The Fifty Year Sword, can be viewed only on an iPad.) “We’re finding that the effort behind these types of books is a magnitude of somewhere between seven and 15 times as much effort as a typical illustrated e-book,” said Liisa McCloy-Kelley, head of the digital production group at Random House (which owns Pantheon). To complicate matters, the differences among rapidly evolving platforms and formats make enhanced e-books difficult to market, even to tech-savvy consumers.
As a result, publishers are proceeding with caution, devoting most of their research and development dollars to genres where interactive features offer the most utility and appeal. Almost all of the enhanced e-books on the market are children’s books or nonfiction, which makes sense—seeing Jacques Pépin make an omelet offers practical value to cookbook readers. Adult fiction, on the other hand, is barely represented in enhanced e-books because watching Michael Chabon share his thoughts on the 1970s, while interesting, feels superfluous, like a DVD extra.
Kim O’Connor is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago.