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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Mark Z. Danielewski discusses the “art” of ebooks

Guest blogger Cailin Donoghue graduated with a master’s degree from Emerson College’s publishing program this past May and now works as the sales and marketing associate at Beacon Press. She can get into a conversation with just about anyone about her cats, and spends her free time watching The Walking Dead and perusing flea markets.

Last month, Mark Z. Danielewski stopped by the Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore in the Boston area, to promote the reprint of his novella, The Fifty Year Sword. Before being picked up by Pantheon, T50YS was originally published privately in 2005 with a print run of only 1,000 copies and was performed on Halloween night as a live shadow show. The bright orange book cover is punctured with holes (an Amazon.com disclaimer informs customers that the holes are intentional, to avoid angry returns). Pages are either filled with text or curiously sparse and are augmented by stitched illustrations that make sense only in the context of the story. This adult horror tale, told by seven anonymous narrators, centers on a seamstress who is attending a birthday party for her ex-husband’s mistress. A storyteller arrives with a long, narrow box and tells the haunting tale of his search for the weapon within.

Those familiar with Mark’s previous books, including Only Revolutions and House of Leaves, will know that his experimental fiction requires a great deal of reader participation. He plays with unconventional themes, layered narratives that question their own reality, and visually complicated text that spirals, runs diagonally across the page, or fragments into tiny, syllabic bits.

In today’s publishing industry, new titles are offered in both print and digital formats, and many popular backlist titles are being converted to ebook format. How could one possibly translate a book like T50YS or House of Leaves into an ebook without losing the style, uniqueness, and eccentricity that defines the work as “experimental”?

Mark’s team at Pantheon brainstormed ways to bring power to his words, and to conjure the same sense of movement and experimentalism that had made his print books so popular. When the storyteller in T50YS describes his journey through the Forest of Falling Notes, where sounds scatter “like pearls on a snipped silk thread,” the words on the page would start to fall, slowly, almost imperceptibly. The trick is in the timing: slow enough not to hinder the reading process, but fast enough to mimic the anxiety and confusion felt by the character. A similar effect would occur when the storyteller ascends the Mountain of Manyone Paths. As he climbs higher up the mountain, the winds grow stronger. He catches fleeting, ghostly wisps of other climbers in the distance, but finds himself unable to reach them, leaving him disoriented and feeling painfully alone. The text would respond by gradually blowing away, crowding at the page’s borders like billowing snow drifts, trapping the reader in the character’s frenzy.

How else might the industry make use of this innovation? Maybe the text would start to heave and roil like the oceans in Moby Dick, or bubble and pop like the Fizzy Lifting Drink in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This kind of reader experience is different than what’s currently being done with ebooks and their use of embedded video and sound. This broaches a whole new realm of ebook potential where text becomes an art form, supplementing the reader experience without the need for outside media. Rising popularity in this field could even result in a new career within the publishing industry: the ebook artist. Publishers would require someone to study the movement in the author’s words, mimic that movement through text, and consider what emotions this movement would elicit in the reader.

Mark was enthralled by these ideas for T50YS and recognized the promise in both formats. The print copy had thread and texture, while the digital copy added movement to his words. Not all authors might be as open to publishers expanding on their work in this manner, but Mark’s experimental, so hey, he’s open to some wild and crazy ideas.

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This entry was posted on November 29, 2012 by in Culture and tagged , , , , .

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