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Despite innovations in printing, binding, and presentation, the book has remained a relatively unchanged medium for hundreds of years. Even eBook publishers are a conservative bunch, with most eBooks echoing the form of printed books. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and many authors are using new technologies to challenge some of the conventions of writing and reading literature using ebook apps.
Obviously, what you consider to be the conventions of literature depend a lot on your personal experiences, but the ones I’ve listed below are what I’ve seen commonly over the course of reading a lot of books.
If you can think of other conventions that have been challenged by ebooks, please share them in the comments!
Stories Are Linear: Arcadia
This was my introduction to the world of “new” books, and it serves as a fantastic first read for anyone interested in how authors are challenging what it means to be a book. Here’s what Iain Pears, Arcadia’s author, told the Guardian about going with a different medium:
As I wanted to write something even more complex, I began to think about how to make my readers’ lives as easy as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure. Once you do that, it becomes possible to build a multi-stranded story (10 separate ones in this case) where each narrative is complete but is enhanced when mingled with all the others; to offer readers the chance to structure the book as best suits them. To put it another way, it becomes fairly straightforward (in theory) to create a narrative that was vastly more complex than anything that could be done in an orthodox book, at the same time as making it far more simple to read.
The 10 different storylines that run throughout the book are represented on a beautiful timeline that shows how they move between different locations, when they intersect each other, and just how complicated the plot in the book is.
Of course, the idea of using an app like this to present your story is that you can create something extremely complex without totally alienating the reader. I didn’t have any trouble following the storylines of the book, partly because some sections are repeated on different storylines, and this helps refresh your memory of what’s going on in various times and places.
Arcadia isn’t quite a choose-your-own-adventure-style gamebook, but the order in which you read the different storylines makes a big difference in how the story progresses in your mind. With the discussions of time travel, causality, and alternate potential universes throughout the book, the medium is fitting in a way no standard book can replicate.
Classics are Boring: Frankenstein / 80 Days
Because of changing language standards, different expectations for stories, and the prevalence of new types of media, modern readers often find classic literature to be very inaccessible. Some of my favorite Gothic novels, like Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and The Turn of the Screw, are quite difficult to read for those reasons, but they’re still worth reading.
That’s where eBooks can help. One of the greatest Gothic novels, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, can be a tough read. But by turning it into an app complete with interactive features, beautiful artwork, and a more immersive experience, many more readers will get to experience Shelley’s classic, and long-time fans will get to see it in a new way.
80 Days does the same for Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, a classic tale of adventure in a hot-air balloon. The story has been updated with a steampunk feel, and the app lets you choose your path around the world, pits you in a race against the clock, has an absolutely massive script, and will be different every time you play. It’s more of a gamebook than an adaptation of the original work, but it’s a fantastic way to experience the novel.
Unfortunately, not many other classics have been adapted to innovative digital forms. I have high hopes that the eBook industry will break out of its conservative stagnation and offer new versions of a lot of classic stories in this medium. Modern readers can learn a lot from classic books, and appealing to them with familiar technology is a great way to encourage people to read more of these significant works.
The Author Tells The Story: To Be or Not To Be
In general, when you read a book, the author tells the story and you read it. That’s how it’s been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But ebooks allow readers to become more involved in the telling of the story, influencing the paths that characters take through the plot and gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work.
That’s the idea behind Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Readers can go through the story as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet Sr., revealing different sides of the story as they go along, and making different choices that influence the plot.
Readers can also see which choices Shakespeare took in the original writing, helping them gain an understanding of why he might have made those choices and how the play would have progressed if he had gone a different way.
In a typical interactive story, it’s expected that the reader is helping guide the story, but applying it to an already written and highly regarded play makes this app a great challenge to how we think of literature and its characterization as a cooperative activity between storyteller and reader.
Protagonists Reflect Readers: A Wise Use of Time
Protagonists reflecting readers isn’t necessarily a solid convention of literature, but it’s something that we see a lot of. People tend to write about what they know, which is usually people that share their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Obviously that’s not always true, but between writers writing what they know and readers gravitating toward characters they can relate to, it happens a lot.
That’s where an app like A Wise Use of Time comes in. In it, you can choose to be male or female, and gay, straight, or bisexual. There are four main romantic options, as well as a secret fifth one, and those relationships can change over time. This allows any given reader to explore a wealth of viewpoints to think about throughout a single sci-fi time-travel story.
By providing a number of options, A Wise of Use Time can appeal to a range of readers and still give them all a chance to explore a worldview that differs from their own. While this and other books from the publisher are considered to be gamebooks, and thus implied to be of a lower “level” of literature, this versatility could be a crucial part of the future of storytelling.
The book’s trailer, above, is abysmal in quality, and the story itself sticks to the tried-and-true text-based style, which has been around for quite a while, but there’s no denying that the flexible gender roles you can choose are innovative additions. Here’s hoping more people take on this challenge in the future.
Literature as Text: Pry
For thousands of years, text was the primary means of transmitting ideas and stories, because it was the only option. The ancient Egyptians didn’t have video cameras, and the medieval British didn’t have touch screens. But because so many new technologies are widespread today, some authors are taking to other media to tell their stories.
Pry is a fantastic example of how one author decided to challenge the idea that literature is stored in and transmitted by text. It combines videos, text, tactile interactions, and sound to create something entirely new, a way of experiencing a story in a way that simulates being inside the mind of the protagonist.
As you open the character’s eyes, move through his thoughts, and reveal his memories, the entire story becomes clear, and the truth that’s hidden between the lines of memory and lies reveals itself. It’s quite the avant-garde project, and could signal an entirely new form of storytelling.
The New Storytellers
Despite the industry’s hesitance to embrace newer and more challenging visions for eBooks, a number of authors have started to push the envelope when it comes to the conventions of literature. These six books have only begun to show us what sorts of innovative things could be coming in the near future. Let’s hope they’re successful and that publishers take notice!
Have you read any of these or other ebook apps? Did you find the experience enjoyable, or would you rather stick to the classic text-based format? Share your thoughts in the comments below!