More than any other art form, literature requires the concentration of its audience. A film continues while you scramble at the floor for your phone; actors on stage carry on while you fish that Malteser out of your bra; a TV programme ploughs on even though you’ve left the room. Stop concentrating while reading however, and a written work simply stops.
A lot has been written about the impact the internet has had on our ability to concentrate – endlessly linking up previously distinct entities, it diverts our attention in a million different directions. There are two results: convenience, and an abundance of stuff. Industries from music to television and publishing are being comprehensively routed by the implications of this new distribution model, and audiences find it increasingly hard to concentrate on anything for very long at all.
Step forward The Space, a “pop-up” online arts service funded by the Arts Council and the BBC. Now over halfway through its intended lifetime, it is more than living up to its aim to “capture and create a wealth of cultural experiences”.
“Wealth” is right – there’s archive footage, dance performances, gallery private views and interactive experiences that let you explore locations as diverse as a photographic studio in Bradford and John Peel’s record collection. All this content, available to you wherever you are and at the touch of a button, prompts the question: what are you, as the solitary audience member, supposed to do with it all?
Click, that’s what. Explore, watch, tweet, discover. Interact. Live performances are transported to your living room – or mobile, or laptop – where you can switch off, press pause or open a new browser window to your heart’s content.
And among the pictures and videos are three projects that seek to digitise that most solitary of cultural experiences: literature and the written word.
There’s the Sillitoe Trail, a literary journey round 1950s Nottingham in the company of Alan Sillitoe, powered by GPS and QR codes. The original novel is notably absent, split into its settings, laid out in images and videos, and dissected by essays instead. It’s a rich experience, but one that suits a second reading of the text, like a digital Cliff Notes.
There’s 60 Years in 60 Poems, a beautiful site that brings poetry to life with audio readings. Luckily, there’s also a brightly coloured spinning disc to gawk at while you listen to actors intone each poem, else you might be tempted to click on all the pretty links. The two main options are revealing: “Explore”, clicking on which whips you to another screen iPad-style, where a stash of photos, newspaper clippings and BBC archive footage give historical context to each poem, and “Read” – suddenly a pedestrian alternative.
And then there’s Kafka’s Wound, a fascinating attempt by Will Self and the London Review of Books to digitise the literary essay, using the diversions, contextual tidbits and stop-start interruptions afforded by links.
It’s an exciting prospect for a writer such as Self, who explores allusion and the associative power of words in his own work, regularly sending his readers to their dictionaries with the denseness of his prose. But what effect does this largesse have on readers? How does this wealth and convenience have on our ability to connect with the written word?
Open the site and a bobbing molecular model of links greets you, offering what seems to be a hundred different ways into the essay. On tentative push of the mouse, the screen rushes to a point in the text, where a video or photo or notation unfurls. It is a bewildering start. The temptation is to leave, click on something else – but that would be a mistake.
It’s more worthwhile to scroll down to the start of the text itself. Self opens with an understatement: “I am guilty of an association of ideas”. The phrase repeats throughout the essay, reminding himself as much as the reader where he is in his line of thought. That line of thought soon becomes irrelevant. Intensely personal, and collaborative too, Kafka’s Wound is an experiment in the discipline of reading. It stitches together ideas from subjects as diverse as physics and music, leaning on the work of Self’s fellow academics at Brunel University. It asks us to close down every other browser window, and concentrate.
Soon I was happily clicking, not away, but for more: dramatic performances of Kafka’s original text, recordings of music popular in early twentieth-century Prague, visualisations of a supernova star transform into a black hole, even a recreation in Second Life open up between the essay’s lines.
By the end, I was dimly aware that Self was drawing comparisons with Kafka, the First World War and internet cookies. What was he on about? It no longer mattered. A great cloud of ideas had emerged, and hasn’t dispersed, a day after I closed my laptop.
The Space is an experiment in how we consume cultural experiences. It does not offer new formats as such, but a new place to consume them, at home, at our leisure, on our own. And with Kafka’s Wound, it shows that the fusion of associative thinking with linear reading leads to an immersive reading experience comparable to any tucked away in the pages of a book, or in the dry, electronic ink of an ebook reader.