News

Undergraduates Celebrate Second Consecutive Virtual Housing Day

News

Dean of Students Office Discusses Housing Day, Anti-Racism Goals

News

Renowned Cardiologist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Bernard Lown Dies at 99

News

Native American Nonprofit Accuses Harvard of Violating Federal Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

News

U.S. Reps Assess Biden’s Progress on Immigration at HKS Event

On Our Location

New e-book affirms the crucial relationship of story and setting

By Gina K. Hackett, Crimson Staff Writer

Along the Cape Cod National Seashore stands a tall, wooden post. Rising up about 20  feet from the sand, it is unremarkable save its curious existence on this beach. Those who visit it call it the Silents’ Pole, and though it bears no inscription, there is a story behind this post.

For most people, the Silents’ Pole will remain silent—and, for that matter, unnoticed. You cannot know its story without making a strange pilgrimage to this barren, sandy Mecca. In fact, you must first be geographically pinpointed, and only then can you uncover the story. Accessing the novel takes no rain dance or ritual—it’s as simple as touching a screen.When readers download publisher Eli D. Horowitz’s brainchild, an Apple app called “The Silent History,” they are not getting just an e-book. Instead, they are getting what co-author Matthew D. Derby calls a “tree-like” narrative. “One half of it acts as the trunk, and that’s the central narrative. That’s composed of 120 testimonials, which are little oral histories,” Derby says. Alongside co-author Kevin F. Moffett, Derby crafted this narrative “trunk,” a six-volume story of a worldwide epidemic that causes children to be born without speech, told through the first-person accounts of several characters who watch the crisis unfold. Each testimonial is released daily to the readers so the epidemic is examined through many eyes, one step at a time.

The central narrative, though beautifully written, is not what distinguishes “The Silent History” from other serial e-books. The branches are where it gets interesting. “The branches of this tree are the field reports, and these are shorter pieces that are written in the fictional world of the app/novel,” Derby says. It is up to the readers of “The Silent History” to participate in writing the story. A reader can fill in the gaps between the characters’ perspectives by crafting fictional field reports of their own, which can only be read by other readers if they travel to the location of the anecdote, guided by the GPS in their iPhone or iPad; the Silents’ Pole is actually the subject of a field report. “We’re trying to create this experience in a reader where…this little tract of land, whether it’s a street corner [or] some tree in the middle of a field would be forever bound to this fictional experience that they had while reading this little vignette,” Derby says.

A connection like this is rarely a part of the traditional literary experience; the project diverges from the print book’s escapism because the world about which you are reading is before your eyes. But although the experimental method behind “The Silent History” may seem like an attempt to change the way we read, it actually reinforces an ancient and inextricable tie between story and setting.

SCREEN VS. SKY

It is, perhaps, the coldest, windiest day yet this fall, and I find myself on a busy corner of Central Square on Mass. Ave, staring at my iPhone in the gale. People around me, I’m sure, think I’m just another kid glued to my phone. It’s okay, I tell myself. I’m reading. And it’s true: I’m reading one of the field reports, a story about a homeless person who loses use of his or her leg right where I’m standing. It’s cinematic, the way you’re pulled in, but you are unaware of the screen. You’re in the film itself. The worst part—or maybe the best—is when I turn and see a man in a wheelchair beside me, and suddenly this man who I would have never noticed before becomes a manifestation of the story. I feel the story change the place; it is invisible graffiti on the brick walls around me. Though the story remains unseen to most passersby, I will always see it when I get off at the Central Square T stop. It lives there.

This is precisely the experience that Horowitz wants readers to have. “When you’re reading a thing and then you look up at it in the world and piece it together yourself, it’s a kind of thrilling, chilling reading experience,” he says. “When you’re walking around, you have that kind of questioning and wondering and observation and mythologizing.” Horowitz hopes that readers will take this curiosity about the physical environment beyond the screen and watch the world become a blank canvas primed for a writer’s paint.

In order to engage with this narrative in particular requires more than pure fantasy—one must build the bridge between the central narrative and one’s imagination. Readers have to map a fictional world onto the real one. “They write something geographically specific that makes meaning out of the physical world that they’re actually inhabiting and also the physical world of their imagination,” Moffett says. In this way, the reader inhabits the role of the writer, and the real world shifts into fiction. When you write a field report, you are inscribing a surface with an invisible story to be preserved in cyberspace.

For Teri Rueb, a locative soundscape artist, this kind of intimate bond between story and setting is the difference between living in and truly inhabiting a place. In 2005, she designed a sound installation in Boston Common that transported viewers to the setting of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, locating them by GPS in the same way that “The Silent History” does. “When you write in the landscape, if you will, a work like this, you’re challenging people to encounter the unfamiliar or to maybe inhabit the city or landscape in a...way that rubs against the grain of their typical daily movement,” she says of the app. “It’s a civic identity: to actually be out in dialogue in a kind of direct engagement with the city, with the population, to inhabit it.” To engage with the world in an imaginative way, she says, is not merely entertainment—it is a civic duty.

Achieving this connection, however, involves a counterintuitive process: staring at a screen rather than the environment around you. “It’s easy to satirize people looking down at their iPhones when there’s a beautiful, cloud-filled sky,” Derby says. “So what we wanted to do is turn that notion on its head and...allow people to get closer to the outside world with these devices that are normally associated with people being way more distant from the physical world.” When you read “The Silent History,” you are using a smartphone—a device that, similar to literature, is used to distance ourselves from reality—to see your environment with new eyes and connect with other readers. Technology becomes a ligament between fiction and reality—between the central narrative story and the collective story generated by the readers.

CONTAGIOUS CLICK

When Horowitz envisioned his newest project, he knew it couldn’t be a stack of paper bound and sandwiched between two covers. It was to be a story about the whole world, and his collaborators agreed that it needed to grow as more and more people told their stories. “A book can’t accommodate this kind of growing, interactive type of narrative,” Moffett says.

When he and Derby were deciding how to write this kind of narrative, Moffett was inspired by the collected oral histories of the AIDS epidemic in late ’80s San Francisco and of polio in mid 20th-century Iowa. He knew a comprehensive story should have the wide scope yet intimate feel of an oral history. “It’s the story of a medical phenomenon. That’s something that affects people all over [and] that’s kind of unified but that can play out very differently for each individual,” Horowitz says. “It was kind of a communal experience with a core thrust, but a million ramifications.” By allowing readers to participate in the writing process, the project was able to simulate the breadth of an epidemic in a way that would have been extremely difficult in novel form. In this sense, “The Silent History’s” approach imitates the way in which we try to understand large-scale events by listening to personal accounts of those affected and piecing them together.

Wanting to integrate this natural instinct to invest ourselves in a narrative inspired a collaborative approach for “The Silent History.” In conceptualizing this project, Horowitz wanted to anticipate this investment and incorporate the readers’ devotion into the original product. “It’s a deep-rooted aspect of the way we invest ourselves in stories and look for evidence of their footprint on the world,” he says. “What I wanted to do was create a format where that kind of obsession was baked into the project itself.”

“The Silent History” is revolutionary not because its form is unprecedented—serial e-books  exist, as do other forums, such as fan fiction, for readers to expand on the stories they love—but because it welcomes the devotion of a reader to a story by allowing them to participate from the start. “It democratizes narrative,” Derby says. We all own the story, and we are allowed to mold it ourselves.

ECHO HISTORY

”The Silent History” is certainly also not the first time that writers and researchers have tried to make the intimate bond between story and setting a technological reality. In 2005, MIT professor Nick A. Montfort, who is also president of the Electronic Literature Organization,  pioneered the “Bubble Project,” a sticker-art movement in which people fill in blank thought-bubble stickers posted on advertisements, pretending to write the model’s thoughts—literally writing on the environment, as opposed to the invisible graffiti made by “The Silent History.” Artists like Rueb and Stefan Schemat, who designs soundscapes, are likewise pioneers in the interactive-fiction field. “There’s the impulse to say, ‘This is new, it’s the first thing, there’s nothing like it,’” Montfort says. “People in fact do new things and, in fact, what they do is connected to history.”

He’s right. MIT was the site of much literary experimentation in the late ’70s and ’80s  as the first personal computers arrived on the scene. Researchers developed some of the first interactive fictional e-worlds (what now we call video games). Later came hypertext fiction—a story in which the plot is determined based on the links one clicks.

It’s the hybridization of collaborative and locative experiments that, along with the technology, that distinguishes “The Silent History”—not the age-old impulse to immerse oneself in a story. In designing her locative soundscapes, Rueb draws on the Native American belief that a landscape carries the history of the people who have lived there. “They believe that when you go to a place, you’re activating that history or that narrative, and that the narrative cannot exist outside of this location,” she says. “It’s actually a very ancient idea.”

Perhaps, then, one is able to trace this human desire to connect narrative to place all the way back to ancient folklore. “Neither of these elements is a digital-age invention,” Harvard English professor Leah Price wrote in an email. “I would see it more as a case of reinventing the wheel.” No story, real or fictional, lacks a setting, and though one could try to tie this recognition to the advent of the technology that allowed that connection to blossom, doing so is fruitless.

Therefore, the introduction of every new mode of experimental literature is not necessarily a threat to the way we read stories. Projects like this one are merely a logical next step in a long line of attempts to immerse readers more fully in a narrative. “It’s kind of a motivation that is a basic human curiosity,” Derby says. “The iPhone doesn’t create that. It just provides us with a new way to explore that.”

A NEW LINK

For now, iPad and iPhone technology seems to represent the realization of such an ability—it allows us seemingly infinite freedom to experiment. “The technology itself was so far behind the imagination of the people that were attempting to write [interactive literature] that it ended up being a really frustrating experience,” Derby says. “But now, all of that [technology] is so seamless and so deeply integrated into our lives. The moment has arrived where we’re losing this distinction between print and digital.”

It remains unclear whether the next step for electronic literature will be defined by e-books that are indistinguishable from their paper forms or more experimental efforts. “E-books are a publisher initiative, and they’re about how to effectively distribute and market books to people digitally, but if you see what’s available on the Kindle, there’s very little innovation in form,” Montfort says. According to him, electronic literature is largely initiated by authors, usually made available to all readers, and demonstrates great innovation. “I see [‘The Silent History’] as a possible point of convergence between more innovative efforts that authors are making and the e-book,” he says. Because the project was initiated by Horowitz—a publisher whose job it is to market the novel but who is also responsible for the experimental form of the novel—“The Silent History” represents a possible fusion of mainstream e-book culture and more niche-oriented e-literature.

Even though “The Silent History” distances itself from mainstream e-books—a form of literature that makes some devotees of the print book uncomfortable—its creators do not envision this form becoming the modern means of reading. “None of us took part in this project because we want to dance on the grave of the printed book,” Derby says. “I think we all believe that the printed book is going to continue and thrive, and this is not in any way a replacement for that.” Rather, the creators want to send the message that there is still potential for experimentation in literature.

Given the fast pace of technological advances, there is always the risk for innovators of going the way of the dinosaur—their inventions losing their relevancy with time. Derby wrote a work of hypertext fiction for his senior thesis at Brown University in HTML form. Saved only on a floppy disc, the work is likely lost, not to mention nonfunctional in a modern sense. Despite new efforts at curating experimental and digital fiction, Horowitz, Derby, and Moffett recognize that this project will someday likely become as functionally irrelevant as Derby’s floppy disc narrative.

Producing a successful literary innovation, however, is merely a matter of negotiating convention; audiences will sift through these experiments, embracing some and rejecting others. “You have to sort of accept that if you’re going to write in this medium, at least for now,” Derby says. “It’s going to be like the wild wild West for many years. It’s kind of fun that way.”

—Staff writer Gina K. Hackett can be reached at ghackett@college.harvard.edu.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
BooksTechnologyArts