Medieval marginalia compiled at Lapham’s Quarterly

Lapham’s Quarterly presented, in image form, a selection of marginal notes made by Medieval scribes as they laboured to reproduce texts.

My favourite is this:

Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.

I also like this very poignant example:

This is sad! O little book! A day will come when someone over your page will say, “The hand that wrote it is no more.”

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Interactive and collaborative fiction – two links

In the Guardian, Alex Hearn reported on an interactive Twitter game named Wanderer. This is a typical choose your own adventure — but with a mutliplayer element [*]:

We’ve become used to franchises such as Call of Duty propping up a lacklustre single-player campaign with a compelling online offering, but the Wanderer takes that and raises it to the next level.

Embedded within the game itself is a fully fledged social experience with more that 300 million active participants. While it may take a while to get the hang of things, the “Twitter” mode is utterly compelling.

Start the game by visiting @wnd_go. Thereafter, each choice in the game is represented by a separate account (your initial choices are @wnd_run or @wnd_hide). Clicking on the Twitter handle you’ve chosen will send you to the corresponding account page, which presents a single tweet describing the consequences of your choice and linking onward to a couple more accounts/choices.

This reminds me tangentially of another project I’ve been meaning to post about here. Late last year I received a Twitter message from @cowriteX telling me about a collaborative writing environment.

CoWrite is a turn and vote based speed writing environment reminiscent of the parlour game consequences. Players contribute on a sentence by sentence basis, and votes from the wider community determine the final shape of a story.

A group of people write a story together. At every point, everybody can propose a next sentence. Everyone can see what gets written in realtime, keystroke by keystroke. At the same time everybody can vote which sentences he or she likes best. After a time limit of some minutes, the sentence with the best voting ‘wins’. This means the sentence gets appended to the story, and the other sentences get dropped. Then again, everyone in the group can propose how to continue from there.

* UPDATE — Having now played the game, it’s clear the ‘multiplayer element’ is Twitter itself. Ho ho. The game is extremely limited, though the presentation is lovely. As it stands, there’s not really much more than a fun gimmick here. And nothing wrong with that. I came across another review in the Irish Times.

Daniel Menaker on threatened gatekeepers

In The Slate writer and literary editor Daniel Menaker considered the traditional gatekeepers of the literary world.

He discussed two conflicts: Amazon v Hachette and the perennial struggle in publishing between the aesthetic and the commercial.

But at the heart of these matters there is nothing new. The push-me pull-you tension between creativity and money is ancient. The one generally, and often uncomprehendingly, envies the other, wants what the other has, wants to materially or aesthetically gain from the other.

Business titans (Jeff Bezos in particular), he said, embody the commercial imperative (but perhaps covet the curatorial prowess of aesthetically inclined editors). However…

The modern, often online and anonymous, neo-Levellers who object to the “elitism” of publishing arrive at their position from the other side, the populist. They are often writers who have failed to get published by mainstream publishers, even good independent presses. Or readers who decry “snobby,” difficult books. One of the loudest voices in this group denunciation belongs to Barry Eisler, a self-published author who told the Guardian that the signatories of the Authors United letter to Amazon were in “the top 1 percent” who “have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.”

This Menaker challenged. And then he arrived at an interesting conclusion. If we are to lose or redefine or transform the gatekeeping role of traditional publishing, something will have to replace it. Otherwise welcome to your four hundred thousand forty cent four star soft porn vampire e-book future (not that there’s anything wrong with soft porn vampires in moderation). It’s not that good work wouldn’t be produced in this dystopian world. The problem would be finding it under all the shit. Manaker said all this better:

Even if all the professionals and connoisseurs and curators are temporarily leveled into the ground by geeks wielding pixels, new ones—new, techno-adept experts, people who know what they’re talking about, culturally speaking, will spring up from the seemingly undifferentiated digital soil like Cadmus’ army sprung from dragons’ teeth. Or old ones will adapt. (For an almost impossibly erudite and complex elaboration on this point see Leon Wieseltier’s piece in the New York Times Book Review.)

I’ll follow that link in a later piece no doubt. The trouble with Menaker’s conclusion is that he bailed on us just when things began to get interesting (just as Will Self did in his Guardian piece). If, as seems likely, we will need new ways to locate value (and not just high literary value), it might be useful to speculate on the form these mechanisms might take. This, Menaker left to the figurative barbarians:

It’s not incumbent on those who defend the publishing industry/business/art and book reviewers to justify the gatekeeping services they perform, however imperfectly. It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves to explain what, if anything, will replace them.

Book stalker

I am a book stalker. If I see you reading a book in a public place I just have to know what it is. Not knowing drives me mad. I might miss a train or a bus just so I can loiter casually until I have finally eyeballed the cover of the novel you’re reading there. I’m not stalking you. I promise. It’s all about the book.

It occurs to me that this minor obsession is triggered primarily by printed and bound books. I do not linger over e-readers, trying to catch a glimpse of a title. At least not yet.

There is a sensual pleasure in stalking a print book. Is it one I’ve read? Is it an edition I know? Or a new cover? What will the reveal tell me about you, reader? And what is this strange link that just your holding a book makes between us? There’s a frisson in knowing that the philandering words snuggle in tight and intimate with us both — with all of us. Not so much missed connections, but connections discovered, connections entirely mediated by our relationship with our own pages and probably never made real or direct. We stay– connected — strangers.

One of the potentials of the e-book is the tantalising possibility of endless interconnection — we’re apparently on the edge of the Facebook of books. We’ll be able to post comments, and know exactly what our friends are reading. We’ll make new friends, and bond over books. Our novels will recommend new people to us, just as our friends suggest novels. Books will invite us to follow each other, and to favourite each other’s reviews. We’ll live-tweet our book experiences. People will reblog our annotations, and we will like that.

Conversely, though, one of the pleasures of the printed book is the absolute tease that you, reader, have a relationship to the book you’re reading that excludes me now. And at the same time I know you too because of my own intimacy with the same words. Books distance us and draw us closer at the same time, and that contradiction is part of where their fascination lies for me.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. I’m not the only one stalking the printed book. In fact, it turns out I’m just a horrible amateur. Slate reports on Reinier Gerritsen’s project “The Last Book” — in which he photographs people reading books on the New York subway.

Gerritsen was struck by the incredible diversity of books he saw in the subway system. He was also interested in observing how an individual’s choice of book was as much an expression of identity as an item of clothing. Gerritsen found the L train’s reading material especially interesting.

“The L is the most intellectual line, I think. A lot of people are going to Brooklyn. They read certain books. There is a difference,” he said.