May 1 2013 2:10pm

Wood, String and Hard Drives: Could this be the Future of the Book?

These Pages Fall Like Ash Neil Gaiman Nick Harkaway

Could a book with wooden covers and bound together with string and brown paper actually be the future shape of how we digest literature in the digital age? A new project involving Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway suggests it might.

If you live in Bristol, you might already be a participant in the These Pages Fall Like Ash project, which until May 8 will be attempting to reconcile any perceived war between physical literature and e-books in a rather startling way.

Conceived by Bristol-based writer Tom Abba along with the artists’ collective Circumstance, These Pages Fall Like Ash is a story of two cities which overlap in space and time but are either unaware of or try to ignore each other—just as, for some, the twain worlds of digital literature and physical books are things that shall never meet.

Abba has brought on board two major talents to help tell the story— Nick Harkaway, the author of The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, and Neil Gaiman, whose The Ocean at the End of the Lane will be published this June.

During his recent keynote speech at the Digital Minds Conference at the London Book Fair, in which he urged publishers and readers to be bold in the brave new world of books that is ahead, Gaiman touched on These Pages Fall Like Ash as a prime example of embracing change.

He said: “These Pages Fall Like going to be a story that’s told across two books—one of which is going to be a beautiful little handmade wooden book with information and where you can also write stuff yourself, and the other is going to be a digital text hidden on hard drives all across the city, in this case Bristol, and read on a mobile device, the idea being to create two books together in a singular reading experience. We’ve created a story about a moment in which two cities overlap, existing in the same space and time, but unaware of each other until now. And people finding this stuff on their mobile devices are going to become part of the story. And again, it’s that thing where you’re creating something that would literally have been unimaginable, we didn’t have the tools or the technology to imagine.”

The Bristol project started on Saturday April 20 and runs for two-and-a-half weeks. Abba says: “I want us all to see our city through new eyes—to learn things about the places we walk we were never aware of. These Pages Fall Like Ash is an exciting new reading experience that will invite people to not only explore all of these elements and more, but to become part of the narrative itself. I can’t wait to see what the participants bring to its story and what the final page will reveal.”

The book has two distinct sets of pages, designed to be annotated and customised by the user to create a unique volume for everyone who takes part. The first batch of pages details a shadowy city called Portus Abonae which occupies the same space as “our” Bristol. The second set of pages, facing the first, details the more concrete locations and stories of the “real world”. But just as the fictional city overlaps with the real one, so do the pages interleave with each other, like a deck of cards being shuffled. As participants pass through various areas of Bristol they activate hidden extra content stored locally on computers in the vicinity.

It seems a beautiful, almost otherworldly idea, and while These Pages Fall Like Ash is a specifically localised event, there seems no reason why the principles behind it could not be widened out on a global scale if needs be. As well as reconciling digital and physical, the project also makes the book something to be desired and held, a wonderfully tactile and immersive experience. With its covers of wood, These Pages Fall Like Ash is a “dead tree” book in its most literal evocation, but with the invisible heft of the whole internet ocean behind it.

Or, as Gaiman also said in his Digital Minds speech: “I suspect that one of the things that we should definitely be doing in digital in the world of publishing is making books—physical books—that are prettier, finer, and better. That we should be fetishizing objects. We should be giving people a reason to buy objects, not just content, if we want to sell them objects. Or we can just as easily return to the idea that one does not judge a book by its cover.”

David Barnett is an author and journalist based in the north of England. His novel Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, the first in a steampunk/alternate history/Victoriana series, is published in September 2013 by Tor Books.

1. rushmc
>>“I suspect that one of the things that we should definitely be doing in
digital in the world of publishing is making books—physical books—that are prettier, finer, and better. That we should be fetishizing objects. We should be giving people a reason to buy objects, not just content, if we want to sell them objects.

Hear, hear. I keep waiting for publishers to "get" this.
Thomas Thatcher
2. StrongDreams
A story you experience by walking around unlocking content may be a work of art, and probably brilliant coming from Gaiman, but it's not a "book" or the future of books. A book is something I can put down, pick up a month later and finish or re-read.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
3. spinfuzz
@StrongDreams: In which case I suspect you'll have people selling you ePub files and dead tree books that resemble what books used to be before ebook technology for a long time to come. On the other hand, there's a chance to do something with all the information that the Internet allows ebook readers to access. To get them involved in their cities, to get them involved in the creative act. This may remain an indie thing, but I dearly hope it catches on. A massively single-player (but overlapping) LARP. It captures a lot of the experiences I think that we geeks get out of other stuff we already have. In a totally new way.
Pierre Gregoire
4. pgregoire
I love the live gaming, splendid object, layered experience of this idea! The setting though - a little disturbing in its similarity to China Mieville's "The City and The City."
Brent Longstaff
5. Brentus
"We should be giving people a reason to buy objects, not just content, if we want to sell them objects." This is very true. I do all my text reading electronically, but I love books as objects so it's nice when books give me excuses to buy the physical version. Getting it signed is one such excuse, as is its having good interior illustrations (especially with text set inside the image so you can't replicate it on a Kindle). The US versions of Joseph Delaney's Spook series is a great example of books worth getting a physical copy of for the illustrations. A beautiful dust jacket is also sometimes enough to make me buy a book (as I did with Railsea and all the original editions of John Bellairs's books that had Edward Gorey's covers). I'm excited to see what new ways authors, artists, and publishers will come up with to make books even more compelling as objects.
6. Finny
I did the same with all the Bellairs' books!
7. hapax
Just to be a grump, I need to point out that these exciting and innovative works of art also work against the trend of increasing access to books. Nobody can "read" this "book" who doesn't have the technology to access the digital form OR the means to visit Bristol, England during those dates.

In the same way, the trend towards digitizing books not only limits access to those with the funds and capability to use electronic reading devices, but also (under the current legal system) eliminates the normal channels of access for those with less funds (e.g., lending, second-hand purchases, libraries, etc.)

Similarly, creating physical "fetish objects" out of books will make the price impossible to not only the poor, but also to publicly funded institutions like libraries as well.

These factors hold of course for many other types of art: live theatre, paintings, etc. But I dearly hope that Gaiman is wrong, and this experimental innovation does NOT become the future of the cheap, mass-produced codex.
Francisco Guimaraes
8. franksands
I think the main problem with digital books and comics is that most of them are DRM crippled, like Amazon and Comixology. I have a lot of comics bought on Comixology but I cannot lend them to my friends. This is something that keep me from buying more digital content from these companies.
9. Tom Abba
Hi all - some responses from the creative team:

@rushmc - yes. We've noticed hardback books becoming more 'crafted' in the UK - a deliberate move toward the book as an object that's worth paying money for. If the ebook has killed (or is driving toward its death throes) the mass market, 'airport paperback', then beautiful design might be a more preferential state of things.

@strongdreams - we tried VERY hard not to call it a book during the development process. It's book-ish, and it's story, but I'm broadly in agreement that it isn't a book. As to whether it's a future form for digital/physical (and more of that below), time will tell. This is an experiment to see what the grammar for writing across two platforms might be like.

@spinfuzz - thankyou.

@pregiore - so, China Mieville's 'The City and The City', Nick’s experiments with 'Urm', Neil's 'Neverwhere', or head back a little further for Michal Ajvaz' 'The Other City' and M John Harrison’s 'In Viriconium', Moorcock’s 'Tanelorn' or Borges’ 'Uqbar'. Yes, this isn't a 'new' narrative framework, but very few things are. The trick is to tell it new (that list drawn from a New Statesman piece I wrote in March - we have been very public with our 'heritage').

@hapax - this is an experiment, and experiments have to have limits and boundaries, or you don't learn anything. We designed it as site-specific because we know how to do that - the unknown elements were enough of a leap into the dark for us without reinventing everything. No-one in the creative team thinks this is going to replace mass market books, but I'm (speaking personally) very interested in what happens when we stop seeing digital - as you allude - as a market to be exploited, and begin to explore what writing for that platform(s) might be like. We will be issuing an edition of These Pages Fall Like Ash that's not site-specific, or time-bound, and the future for us (Circumstance) is to explore digital/physical interaction with different writers, and build on what we've learned here.

There - I'll check back here in a few days, and if anyone has anything to add, I'm @tomabba on twitter.

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