What do old-fashioned paper-bound books mean in an age of digital literature? Alyson Fielding aims to find out, with an intriguing new electronic storytelling project.
Last year I received a book through the post, bound in brown paper and string, with a hand-signed letter enclosed. The letter described a project called The Library of Lost Books and explained that the enclosed book – which had been rescued during a library clear-out – should be given a new lease of life.
My book, a beautiful green-bound 1933 copy of The Picturegoer’s Who’s Who and Encyclopedia, is one of forty sent around the country by Susan Kruse. Susan is the woman behind The Library of Lost Books, and the person responsible for rescuing these books from obscurity.Susan says on the Library of Lost Books site:
“We rummaged around in bins and found treasure – old books and music scores. Their spines were broken, their pages speckled but we loved them. We figured other people would love them too. Each rescued book is being sent to an artist to be given new life as a work of art.”
The Library of Lost Books was born.
Fellow artists on the project have created some beautiful book modifications, using media such as glass, ink and pen. One is in the shape of a moveable, miniature theatre; another has been rebound into a series of five new books.
My own book explores the idea of the book as an enchanted object. I’m hiding sensors and other technology inside the book’s spine to create something that feels magical and playful: a talking, gesture-controlled book. The reader navigates through the story by moving the book in different ways, such as taking the book off the shelf, laying it flat on a table or turning a page.
There are two main ideas I’m exploring with the project. Firstly, what does a digital book without a screen actually mean? And secondly, what does this suggest for creating connected stories, and for the stories we tell through enchanted objects? (This is a subject Paul Rissen explored in detail for The Literary Platform recently). I’ll be exploring these two ideas, focusing on the interaction with the object itself, with fellow collaborators Mo Ramezanpoor and Dave Addey.
To bring the book to life, I’m using a LilyPad – a tiny computer designed to work with fabrics and clothing to create wearable electronics. Connections are made by sewing with a needle and conductive thread, rather than by using solder and wire.
There are hidden sensors inside the book’s spine to gather data about a person’s interaction with the book. This raw data is fed to the LilyPad, which sends it over a wireless network to a nearby hidden iPhone. The iPhone processes and interprets the book’s movements, and plays the appropriate parts of a linear audio narrative through a pair of Bluetooth headphones to the person holding the book.
It’s essential for the project that the technology is hidden out of sight – it’s there as an enabler, and nothing more. The important thing is the book as object: the feel of the fading paper; its weight in the reader’s hands, and the musty, sweet, comforting ‘old book’ smell.
Using an iPhone as the device to enable and drive the story presents the interesting opportunity of connecting the book to the Internet, and adding another layer of storytelling online. Should the book be connected to social media, and tweet about what happens to it? This is certainly something I’m considering. The primary experience, however, is the intimate connection with the reader him or herself – experiencing a story with the book, through their own physical interactions when reading.
To give the book a voice, the Bluetooth headphones play its story as it is taken off the shelf and read. The use of headphones reinforces the point that only a single reader can experience the story at once. The story told by the book is a linear narrative of its history, of the readers it has met and its relationship to humans. This is another layer of a story, working alongside the original one (the printed words in the book) and with some additional stories I’ve hidden on the book’s pages, giving extra rewards for the curious reader.
Essentially, this project is about our emotional relationship with the book as a physical object and how technology can enhance that object. We leave traces of ourselves in books through creased and dog-eared pages, cracked book spines and by leaving scraps of paper – train tickets, shopping lists, old – between pages. Why is it difficult to let that go in an age of digital?
A digital book shouldn’t mean we need to let go of the emotional connection to a physical object, and combining books with technology doesn’t have to mean a device with a screen. It can be about using the best of technology to further our relationship with the physical book as object. The work of the Interactive Newsprint team to create a newspaper printed on digital interactive ‘smart’ paper, responsive to human touch, is a fascinating example of what this could look like. The project opens many possibilities for new forms of digital storytelling.
What might a future story of publishing look like if the technology was embedded into the spines, the covers – even into the paper – of a physical book, and responded to a reader’s touch?
Paul Rissen’s recent piece for us about the stories in ‘enchanted objects’, which references Alyson’s work, is here.