Future Tense

The Ghost in the Machine

Avant-garde novelist Mark Z. Danielewski is changing the way we read e-books.

Mark Z. Danielewski.

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.

The Chabon video is a real feature in the enhanced e-book edition of his recent novel, Telegraph Avenue, which showcases many of the potential pitfalls in enhancing adult fiction. There’s a playlist of music assembled by the author, excerpts from the audiobook, and an interactive map of Oakland—all of which feel tacked on. Even the original theme song, while charming, impedes the actual process of reading. You have to hang out patiently near the title page to enjoy the three-and-a-half minute tune; otherwise, it stops playing when you flip past the table of contents.

In contrast, The Fifty Year Sword offers a nearly seamless experience. “We didn’t want anything to feel forced,” said Lillian Sullam, a technical specialist who worked closely with Danielewski to create the enhanced e-book. “Because it’s fiction, it needed to be integrated into the overall reading experience without pulling you out of it unnecessarily.”

With Sullam, Danielewski devised special effects that explore his obsession with design—a level of involvement at the digital development level that’s unusual for a writer. (He also helped with the e-book’s haunting original score, which was composed by the classical pianist Christopher O’Riley.) The enhanced e-book’s spooky animated text teases out the movement that’s latent in Danielewski’s language on the printed page and emphasizes fragility, violence, and other emotional textures in the work. In a section that describes a place called “The Valley of Salt,” smears of black slowly come into focus. The words are decipherable for only an instant before they retreat into oblivion. A few pages later, in “The Forest of Falling Notes,” letters begin to drop from the page almost as quickly as you can read.

These technical feats come across as deceptively simple. “You can read it in under an hour,” Danielewski said. “But it also has a lot of rewards if you’re willing to look more closely.” The enhanced e-book’s Easter eggs actively encourage close reading in a medium where readers rarely linger before swiping their fingers across the screen.

While the fancy effects pioneered by The Fifty Year Sword were expensive to develop, they will pay dividends. In terms of tangibles, there’s the code library that Pantheon’s e-books team has built that will be used not only in the development of House of Leaves (tentatively scheduled for a spring 2013 release), but also in other titles across genres. More importantly, there’s a philosophy behind that code that every bell and whistle should be in service of the story, whether it appears on the page or on an e-reader.

For Danielewski, who initially assumed that the e-book would be a “lesser translation” of its print counterpart, the final product exceeded expectations. “I think there’s a common point between both worlds,” he said. “And then there’s also a point of departure where they each demonstrate their own sort of possibilities.”

As an avant-garde novelist, Danielewski has a knack for spotting those possibilities, even when they’re invisible to most of us. But it’s important to remember that in literature, as in technology, there’s something empty and fleeting in innovation for innovation’s sake. What makes Danielewski’s work so valuable across media is never the idea that it’s new. It’s his delight in demonstrating, time and again, that familiar forms are capacious enough to hold all sorts of weird stuff for which we haven’t yet quite found the words.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Correction, Dec. 4, 2012: This article originally stated that the deluxe edition of The 50 Year Sword was stitched in Nepal. It was stitched with Nepalese binding.