Google’s New Interactive E-Books Would Be Impossible to Print
There was a moment when e-books felt a little bit magical. A single device that stores hundreds of books, fits in a tote, and doesn’t give paper cuts? Clearly, this was an upgrade to the tattered paper books we’d been reading for hundreds of years. Then, some years and a few generations of Kindle later, digital books began to feel less like magic and more like pixelated versions of what’s already on our shelves. Being digital didn’t necessarily add anything to the reading experience. In fact, it was physical books that seemed to be pushing the boundaries of publishing.
Visual Editions, a publishing house out of London, has been at the forefront of experimental book design for the last five years. Led by Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen, the publishing house is behind unusual books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s die-cut “Tree of Codes” and “Where You Are,” a book made from individual maps. Visual Editions books are weird. They’re highly visual and deliberately physical. As Iversen puts it, “There has to be a damn good reason to produce it in print otherwise it might otherwise live as a PDF or e-book.”
The studio’s designers are adept at turning physical books into interactive experiences that are arguably more closely related to digital apps than they are to their own medium. So it makes sense that Visual Editions‘ newest project has gone full digital. Editions At Play is a series of books created in tandem with Google’s Creative Lab that reimagines what a digital book can and should be.
The team set out to make what it calls “un-printable books.” They started by flipping the question they always asked themselves before taking on a Visual Editions project: Is there a good reason it should be printed? “If it’s as good of an experience printed or as a PDF or as a straightforward e-book then it’s not right,” Iversen says.
The first two books in the series both live on browsers (they’re not traditional apps), but they’re wildly different experiences. “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” from co-authors Sam Riviere and Joe Dunthorne, is a book of poetry disguised as a conversation. The app leads you through an interplay of the authors’ inner thoughts and public correspondences, deftly letting the narrative guide the reader as much as the color-coded interface, which denotes who’s speaking. The reader is ping-ponged between points of view, which could be a disorienting experience. Instead, if you have faith that the book will lead you where you need to go, the ambiguity is one of the more compelling aspects of the story. “There’s a good way of getting lost, and a bad way of getting lost,” says Iversen.
The second book “Entrances and Exits” by Reif Larsen, uses Google Maps to usher the reader through a love story. Clicking on a door or portal transports a reader to a new narrative in the book, and it’s there under the roof of a house that you watch the peculiarities of otherwise hidden relationships unfold. Despite the obvious application of Google technology, using wayfinding to propel a narrative feels oddly intimate, as though you’re actually inside the narrator’s home watching the peculiarities of a relationship unravel. Larsen’s book, in particular, highlights the interesting role that technology can play in fiction: If it’s too heavy handed it detracts from what makes a novel gripping in the first place, which is our ability to build the world in our minds. Tom Uglow of Google Creative Lab explains the goal is to create an interactive experience where the technology acts as a scaffold for the words. “It should be gently lifting the ideas or themes of the book like a score might life the themes of a film,” he says. “It should emphasize what the author is talking about.”
Both books are probably considered “experimental fiction,” though they’re rooted in the lineage of electronic literature, which has been around since the late 1990s and encompasses forms like “choose your own adventure” or hypertext fiction. Still, the Editions At Play books (of which there will be many more), feels different. Perhaps it’s the high-design gloss and Google technology. It’s fun to imagine what digital books might be like when words and interaction are developed simultaneously for the same platform. Suddenly, an e-book isn’t merely a new vessel for a block of words—instead, the narrative itself is informed by what’s technologically possible. It feels like these first two books are just the beginning; and indeed, if you visit the Editions At Play website, you can browse through “back of the napkin” concepts for future books that authors have submitted. Whether or not people are willing to embrace this form of storytelling on a sustainable scale has yet to be seen, but I personally would love to see it happen. Uglow, for his part, is confident that people are ready to have a more experimental reading experience. “Every time we do a book, people’s ideas of what’s possible expands,” he says.