Neal Stephenson’s Take On Saving The Novel

Everyone knows books and long form reading in general are in a slow fade. The Chronicle of Higher Education asks if the book will survive:

Three years ago, Weidenfeld & Nicolson launched its Compact Editions series of classics such as Vanity Fair and Moby-Dick. The publisher explained that they’d been “sympathetically edited so that most of them are under 400 pages,” but that the cuts “in no way detract from the spirit of the original.” Surgery simply rendered such classics less “elitist.” Dripping drollery in The Times of London, critic Richard Morrison opined that truth in advertising behooved the publisher to adjust titles as well, perhaps to Vanity Off-Peak Fare, and Mini-Dick.

Any wonder that last year, two cheeky University of Chicago undergrads with literary parents—Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin—published Twitterature (Penguin), boiling down classics of world lit to 140-character bone? Here’s their speed-read version of The Epic of Gilgamesh: “@UrukRockCity—Great. That’s it. I’m leaving Uruk. My best friend in the world is dead, all because the gods couldn’t handle our bromance.”

The signs of readerly surrender pop up everywhere. Princeton student Isia Jasiewicz, reviewing a book for Newsweek this summer as an intern, admits in her last paragraph that she bothered to read only the first 10 pages. Linda Nilson, director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness at Clemson University, posts a piece titled, “Getting Students to Do the Reading” on the Web site of the National Education Association, advising: “Look for readings with graphics and pictures that reinforce the text, and pare down the required pages to the essentials. The less reading assigned, the more likely students will do it.”

Science fiction author Neal Stephenson is putting his action where his fiction is. He’s created a company to help re-invent the book for our fractured times.

[He’s] been credited for inspiring today’s virtual world with his novel Snow Crash. Now he’s launching a startup himself: Subutai, where he is co-founder and chairman.

The company, based in Seattle and San Francisco, has developed what it calls the PULP platform for creating digital novels. The core of the experience is still a text novel, but authors can add additional material like background articles, images, music, and video. There are also social features that allow readers to create their own profiles, earn badges for activity on the site or in the application, and interact with other readers.

One can’t help but be encouraged that Stephenson is trying. Still, we wandered through a largely empty Barnes & Noble this evening, marveling again that the vast majority of items on display were really products, so-called ‘books’ in masquerade. As the Chronicle article cited above observed, the book’s demise is separate from the sideshow of ebooks vs. bricks and mortar/Big Box-Style Outlets. Imagine all this same ‘merch’ enriched with shouting, braying, linking, tweeting multimedia technology ala PULP and Subatai or some other approach.

Scary innit?


  1. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Perhaps Cantor or someone will offer the obvious solution, rolling back the marginal tax rates on diverted American aid. Most likely Glassman or Fund is dictating the academic rationale as we type, sipping a Corona wearing too little sunscreen poolside, thinking their leering at decades younger women subtle.
    Dr Leo Strauss recently posted..Neal Stephenson’s Take On Saving The Novel

  2. Comment says

    We just thought the whole headline “US to temper stance …” was a novel in itself – As if from day 1 we did not hand out cash to warlords and poppy farmers. But the whole dehumidifier vs. humidifier aspect is a classic 21st cent. Americanism.

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