New Work for New Devices

At the Consumer Electronics Show a few weeks ago, at least 100 new tablets were revealed. A minority of these were e-readers, including a “Multimedia Novel” by Pandigital that comes preloaded with Barnes and Noble’s Nookbook store. Exciting name, but not such an exciting device other than its under-$300 price tag. With very few exceptions, the texts one can read on these devices are digital versions of existing books and magazines. I’d like to share with you one of these exceptions, the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch app What They Speak When They Speak to Me by Jason Lewis.

What They Speak screenshot

Screenshot of iPhone version

The digital page opens on a jumble of translucent white letters on a black background, slowly jostling one another. I shook my iPad, wondering if the letters might bunch together and form words. Nada. I dragged a finger across the screen, leaving a thin white line on which letters started to gather like pigeons on a telephone wire. So one reads by creating a surface for the phrases, line by line. It’s a simple and satisfying interaction, just a finger swipe. Reminds me of the act of turning a page, which of course also makes text “magically appear” on the next sheet of paper. But there is something more playful and exciting about watching the letters come together before your eyes, I caught myself starting to predict what the words were about to speak to me. I was also reminded of a beautiful talk by Virginia Woolf where she asks us to “Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Antony and Cleopatra; poems lovelier than the Ode to a Nightingale; novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order.”

But why is it important to make the reader work for the words, tease them out of a chaos of letters? Why not just write the darn poem out flat? Is it a desire to expand reading to embrace seeing and touching? Interestingly, this work is listed under the Entertainment category rather than Books on the iTunes App Store.

What they Speak is only 99 cents at the iTunes App Store. Support your local digital media writer! As tablets become more and more visible, I’m hopeful that bit by bit (har har) we’ll see more fine writing produced specifically for this new reading surface. Fellow readers, have any of you published for this platform yet? What do you think of the experience of reading on a tablet?

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6 thoughts on “New Work for New Devices

  1. That seems like the sort of thing that might actually convince me to read on a screen. It seems somehow truer to the essence of language itself than the still page. I have no basis for this other than sheer speculation, but I suspect that it would actually help some people to read better as well. If it makes language literally more dynamic, more supple, then perhaps it is meeting the mind partway in terms of what transpires in literary reading. I would have to try it out, of course, to see whether this is simply wishful thinking on my part.

  2. That Woolf quote is quite Coleridgean (best words, best order). I do think there is an increasing “desire to expand reading to embrace seeing and touching.” Especially the touching.

    I think there was this unfounded notion a while back that electronic texts somehow were “disembodied” but it’s actually not the case… Carrie Noland is pretty smart about this issue and digital poetry: “In recent years it has become clear that digital poetry, far from attenuating our relation to the human body, actually awakens this body and its kinetic energies in a variety of highly inventive ways…In fact, digital poetry makes it possible to retrieve–and even amplify–aspects of a subject’s kinesthetic experience of manual inscription that simply cannot be captured by older print technologies such as the typewriter.” That’s from her book _Agency and Embodiment_ (2009).

    What they Speak does seem like a cool app — I concur with Tim that something like that might convince me to start using these new devices.

    • Yes, that’s a great connection to embodiment, Michael. That’s exactly what I was thinking about. Something that makes reading less of the mind and more of the body–not that I believe in this dualism but you know. The part of the brain that has comes out of the wrists can be pretty smart. I was just watching “Between the Folds,” a documentary about origami (thanks to Evan Lavender-Smith for the recommendation), and it’s astonishing what can be made when a physicist’s mind extends into outrageously nimble fingertips. And to pick up further on this embodiment idea, Andy Clark posits the extended mind, i.e. that the book, or in this case the text that might be shaped like clay, is actually part of the brain. So I say bring it on! I’d love to work with an interface that allowed me to write this way. It’d be like becoming a choreographer with language dancers. App developers?

  3. Michael, Tim, thanks for the comments. I hope you have a chance to write something for an app! Jason Nelson is going to release a new version of the app soon, and has invited several writers (I’m one of them) to prepare texts. I’m still flummoxed by how to prepare the text … I should look into examples of touching and reading: braille, new readers sounding out words as their finger traces the line, using the yad to read a Torah scroll… other examples? Help?

    • Yes, the yad is a great example–I was thinking of that, and that raises some intriguing issues that I don’t know enough about regarding language as sacred, language as possessing force beyond human use-value, as something more than tool, as dangerous (as in certain words aren’t to be spoken nor, presumably, touch-prodded into being), etc.

      Seems like there are all sorts of metafictional possibilities for composing with this app. I’m picturing an unwritten chapter of If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller in which the position of the reader’s hands is called out by Calvino.

      I’d love to be involved at some point in developing text for this thing. Look forward to seeing what you come up with!

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