In 3000 BCE, papyrus scrolls allowed people to preserve oral stories in writing. Then, about 2000 years ago, people figured out that they could fold a scroll up into a codex, or even produce individual sheets of paper that could be bound into a book.

Around 1439 CE, Gutenberg’s movable type printing allowed people to reproduce books for the masses.

By the late 1800s, paperbacks were finding themselves in the most remote locations of the world. Books were more available to the general public than ever, but these books were still written as though the stories within them were consistent, straightforward narratives–oral stories on paper.

Meanwhile, new types of media were being invented. In the 1900s, the first records were released. Among them was a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, released by Odeon Records. It was a re-creation of a live performance, similar to how books were re-creations of oral stories.

In 1966, the Beatles decided they didn’t want to play live shows anymore, so they produced Revolver, the first popular album not intended to be a re-creation of a live performance. Thus, in a few short decades, the medium was reinvented. The Beatles used the process of creating the medium, as well as the limits and benefits of the medium to produce their art (for example, they recorded instruments backward to produce a sound that couldn’t be reproduced live, unless you’re a time-traveling musician).

In 2010, the vast majority of books are still, in essence, a re-creation of a consistent narrative that could just as well be an oral story.

The book weeps, for it desires to be reinvented.

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AARON DIETZ is the author of Super, a novel from Emergency Press about commitment, crisis, paperwork, and heartbreak. Dietz's super powers include a high metabolism and the ability to put things back where he got them. He's also pretty good at math. As an instructional designer, Dietz has written online high school courses on computer programming, green design, and 3-D video game creation. It’s natural for him to write quizzes. He’s worked a decade in libraries. He’s also been paid to count traffic and once failed a personality test. Dietz writes for TheNervousBreakdown.com, blogs at aarondietz.us, and is an advisory editor of KNOCK Magazine.

59 responses to “A Brief History of the Book”

  1. Aaron Dietz says:

    Of course, there are exceptions: pioneers that are out there, exploring the boundaries of book technology.

    Examples: Choose Your Own Adventure-style books. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! The list goes on.

    It’s just not the standard for a book to be designed to take advantage of the medium, and this “oral story” concept of narrative is now being piped into still more formats without taking advantage of the potential of these new electronic formats (though there are exceptions brewing there, too).

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, man, how awesome was House of Leaves for messing with the form?

    And for terrifying me, but also rebirthing my faith in love.

    Good piece, Mr. Dietz. And a thought-provoking one, also.

  3. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Well, after paying attention to what Mr. Listi’s recently had to say about it, the weeping book can dry its eyes on the impending digital era, and the technicolor and interdisciplinary modes of story-telling its about to bring!

    I enjoyed this tale of literary evolution, Aaron.

    And thank you for schooling me on the derivation of the pop album. I didn’t know that about Revolver. What a fact!

    • Aaron Dietz says:

      Yes–I look forward to ways in which digital delivery of text and book-like art will push books to be more dramatically designed. And to the advantages that authors will have when they can design their work for a digital delivery. I’ve got SO many ideas I want to put into play, there, in the near future.

      And yeah–that’s part of what makes Revolver an important work. Up until then, most artists had to produce albums that they’d be able to play live, because the single and the album supported getting people to the shows, where people apparently made money. But the success of the album increased and pretty soon bands could make money off of albums alone (though in the Beatles’ case, they mostly were concerned that it was impossible to play anywhere without the situation becoming entirely unsafe for everyone involved).

      Caveat: I only vaguely know about any of this, and could well be wrong or not entirely right. But I think it’s more or less reasonably accurate.

  4. D.R. Haney says:

    What about pop-up books? Or books that allow the reader to feel the “fur” of the animal depicted, or, with the touch of a button, can play the sound of the animal’s voice? The cow says…

    I don’t mean to be a smartass, Aaron, and I appreciate your point, or points, but I don’t think Ulysses, for instance, can be reduced to, simply, an “oral story,” and even if that were so, how could it ever be replicated perfectly by a speaker other than Joyce — or even by Joyce himself (if he were alive to tell it)? Or would a tape suffice? I don’t think it would, not in the case of Ulysses, which contains wordplay of a kind that has to be seen, not heard, in order to be understood — if, even then, it can be understood, in full or in part.

    This is a tricky area, this argument about the book as a form that I hear again and again of late, and to me it says that a great many people have been led by technology to expect “improvement” at every turn. Maybe that, too, is reductive. I don’t know. But I’ll say this much: I made an effort to read House of Leaves, and I wasn’t at all persuaded by the writing.

    • It’s an interesting take on history, but yeah, there’s a lot more to it. People are always trying to reinvent, and I guess we have a good working formula that makes us stick to the old ways. The internet certainly is a huge challenge. It’s now possible to have books that contain videos or music, or, as you say, pop-up graphics and fur to touch.

      The history of the oral story, though, is fascinating. I like that humans have for so long made efforts to entertain and inform one another, and that this goes on today in a way not too far removed from that of several thousand years ago.

      • Aaron Dietz says:

        The oral story is great, and I wouldn’t wish it to die out or anything, but I feel like the vast majority of literature being written in this form is a symptom of unoriginal thinking, as well as the old habits of the industry.

        People are always trying to reinvent, but fewer people seem to have done that in literature*.

        * Completely subjective assessment.

    • Aaron Dietz says:

      By all means, be a smartass, D.R.

      One: Ah, children’s books…. They’re often pretty cutting edge.

      Two: Yes, Ulysses, especially, would be an exception to the traditional oral story format. Plus, it has wonderful stuff like “moocow” in it. I think Joyce gets points for experimenting in many ways.

      My main point (I guess? Yes, I suppose I had a point.) is that the vast majority of books published, even after 5,000 years of people creating literature, haven’t deviated from the original formula (whereas albums have changed considerably over just 100 years). Caveat: There have been exceptions – I’ll definitely admit that.

      I haven’t read House of Leaves yet – I just flip through pages and look at them – but a lot of people have told me it’s great. I guess there’s a meta quality to it that I think I’d like. But mostly I just like text doing lots of strange things on the page.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Last night I was at a reading here in L.A. at which professional actors read different chapters of Stefan Kiesbye’s “Devil’s Moor.” Each — one at a time, one story at a time — sat on a chair and read. They used some gestures, no props beyond clothing. It was nothing like a “play.” It was spectacular and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

      Although I haven’t asked Stefan, I don’t think he meant his stories to be performed, and again, fearful of being misunderstood, I’ll repeat that what happened wasn’t different from an ordinary reading except that the readers were fine actors and actresses, so what they delivered to the audience was very different from what those of us who read from our own works can produce. They knew how to use their voices and they allowed themselves some subtle gestures.

      I hook this reply to Duke’s because before last night I hadn’t given any thought to how something that was written to exist on a page would sound out of the mouth of somebody who really understood how to turn a written story into an oral story. I’m not arguing about Joyce — I’m only saying that what I learned last night is that taking a story from the page and delivering it orally involves more than just reading it out loud. And when it’s done right, the story becomes a different thing. It’s no longer written words delivered by mouth.

      Not all of us are good story-tellers, no matter how good we may be at writing stories. In my own experience in a tribal society, where it was all oral, some story-tellers were laughably bad (by which I mean that villagers made fun of them) and others were superb and could catch the audience and hold them, easily, every time.

      I think I’m a decent reader, but after last night I realized that right now all I know to do is read words from the page at an effective pace and with reasonable emphasis where required. Those actors turned words on a page into something that caught up the audience.

      If I don’t learn anything else from my L.A. trip (except how cool Lenore and Duke are, and what Brad’s baby looks like) I’ll be satisfied by what I learned last night.

      • Aaron Dietz says:

        Lovely comment. Now I’m thinking maybe the reason I don’t want to write what could be interpreted as an oral story is because I’m not a good oral story teller. Speaking to people frightens me. It’s a scary experience.

      • Aaron Dietz says:

        Oh, now, see, your comment, after time, and me thinking about it more, has given me some thoughts!

        Okay: see, it’s like a reader just reading text isn’t making full use of the medium, right? Like, if they were to say, “I’m going to be true to the literature and not use inflection of my voice or facial expressions or hand gestures,” they wouldn’t be taking full advantage of the medium for the sake of the work. And your readers that you witnessed must have been taking full advantage.

        This compares to my whole feeling about the book’s situation in that writers often don’t take full advantage of the medium–there’s font selection, arrangement on the page, pictures maybe, curvy text. More stuff. Other stuff. Millions of tons of stuff to try and do. IF it helps the work.

        You wouldn’t go to a reading and read a tense dramatic piece in a baby voice, unless that somehow really really worked (well, I could see it working, as a satire yada yada). But anyway…bottom line: Don, thanks for stopping by. You filled in some gaps for me with your wonderful comment.

    • Gloria says:

      I made an effort to read House of Leaves as well, and I also wasn’t persuaded by the writing. I found it obfuscated and inaccessible. And Duke, it’s comforting to hear that you had the same issue.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I had a talk with Ben Loory about House of Leaves in the wee hours, after posting my initial comment, and I felt a bit like a dope when, at my request, he outlined the narrative. It sounds a lot more interesting than I would’ve guessed from what I read. I just didn’t buy the character, as a character, who narrated the part I read, and that didn’t much make me want to continue. The voice was somehow off. The character, who lives in L.A., seemed like a facsimile of an L.A. type, and the “regular guy” aspect struck me as a little forced, for want of a better word. It makes sense that a writer who’s so invested in form would stumble a bit with character, though that may not be the case, since, again, I didn’t continue far enough to form a considered opinion.

        Meanwhile, Don, in person, proved to be just as cool as I could’ve expected, if not more so. So there you go, Don. In fact, you raise a point that had flashed through my head, which has to do with the qualitative difference in storytellers. Of course stories were once passed along orally, but some listeners surely heard better versions of those stories than other listeners, and books allow narratives to become fixed, to a point — that is, no two of us read in exactly the same way, so that my version of a story isn’t going to be the same as someone else’s, even though the same language was used, in both instances, to activate the senses.

        Flannery O’Connor, in addressing experimentation in literary matters, once said: “A great deal has been tried, but not much has worked.” I don’t quote her by way of saying that experimentation isn’t worthwhile. As Aaron says, Joyce was an innovator, as were most (if not all) of his fellow modernists, and I’m partial to a number of them. In the end, though, I don’t much care about convention or the lack of it, so long as I enjoy what I’m reading.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Yeah–Don’s post. I couldn’t think of any response that was near as cool.

          D.R.: No reason to feel like a dope. Not at all.

          Love that O’Connor quote. It’s perfect for this post.

          Your summary, however, hits it square. Convention or no, it’s got to grab at something and catch hold.

          I like your comments about the same text invoking different reactions–that’s the joy of the subjective experience, and good writers push that button repeatedly, whether their work is experimental or not.

  5. Becky Palapala says:

    I’ll introduce two notions:

    1) If Joseph Campbell were here, he would say there’s a reason why books (stories) haven’t changed, to speak of.

    George Lucas and the Star Wars franchise could probably testify.

    2) I wrestle mightily with the notion of accessibility. Truly avant garde literature (there really is not such a dearth) is well and good for people who have the theoretical background and experience with literature to make sense of it, but at some point, to a lot of people, most people, what literati deem innovation is just indulgent obfuscation.

    So, you know. Who’s the audience for these reinvented books? And how reinvented is reinvented?

    True enough Choose Your Own Adventures were (are?) a commercial success, but while they will have you flipping around in a book, the basic narrative format is intact. It’s not in the “right” order–you read pg. 18-20, then go to page 3, rather than 21, for the rest, but it’s essentially pretty straight-up.

    I understand why the interactive part is innovative, but then again, it’s more of a gimmick than a fundamental departure from narrative structure.

    • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

      Becky. Your brain is fucking delicious.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        You sweet talker.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Wonderful input, Becky. Here’s the “innovative” part of Choose Your Own Adventure books:

          They used one of the unique features of the medium (the ability to skip around within the text). By contrast, most books that are written today are better suited to be flowing text documents, like you’d find in some electronic eBook formats. This, of course, isn’t an incredible leap for books–it’s just one tiny way that the format can be exploited as part of the literature.

          Good point about accessibility, and I’m glad you brought up story – the problem with many experimental works out there is that they forget about the story, or make it so unclear that it’s hard to follow. I don’t believe things have to be that way, but many of the people pushing limits are definitely trudging into a confusing territory–fun to see, and quite interesting, but much of that literature risks losing the reader.

          The story should be the focus (everything IS a story). But most books resemble oral story format so much that they don’t really need to be books anymore (I mean, they don’t even take advantage of wonderfully easy-to-use features of InDesign, say–the technology to play with your text a little isn’t that complex, and it can definitely enhance the literature–though, of course, the text often needs to be written with that in mind.)

          Campbell archetypes can and should still exist in experimental works. Are audiences ready for a little twist? I think so. A little twist. Jumping from Tchiakovsky to the Beatles’ Revolver wasn’t really THAT great of a leap, after all. The brilliance shines through in both works.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          The Campbell point was less about the archetypes and more about the story structure. The notion that there is one story that will appeal to people over all others, and regardless of the details, that story follows a basic structure that mimics our understanding of the world as a cross-culturally translatable progression from one event to the next, involving life, death, sex, etc. and on an on.

          Then again, it also seems like there’s potential to talk about different types of innovation, two of which are coming up but haven’t really been isolated as separate entities.

          You can read a book with a non-traditional narrative structure that makes no super-innovative format advantages, like, say, Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. You read it front cover to back cover, and it does have a story, technically, but it also has about 8 other stories and somewhere behind all of it a whole lot of literary theory and perception theory and so on.

          Or you can have a book that really makes no innovations in narrative, but gets you moving around the book, the physical thing…like a Choose Your Own Adventure. I’ve seen books you can read backwards or forwards, concrete poetry that makes you move the page around, etc. I mean, it’s out there.

          That’s not to say they’re mutually exclusive; they could (and probably do, somewhere) both happen in the same book. How much and how far the average reader would tolerate it is anyone’s guess, but I’d argue that, especially with modernism & postmodernism, with literature’s often open acknowledgment of the reader and the reality that the book is a book (Calvino again is an excellent example), we’re kind of already at Revolver.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Great points! I don’t know–Revolver is not the standard in literature. But then it could be fair to say that most bands don’t really strive to do much more on record than they’d do in a live setting as well. Sigh? Then again, I think there are more musicians doing nothing but using the recording equipment itself than there are writers who are thinking about the layout, or writing their work in InDesign. Perhaps contributing to that is the relative cost of each technology. InDesign is expensive. Audacity is free. Hm.

          However, there is more experimentation everyday in literature, mostly because the technology makes it easy now (even if it can be expensive). I wish experimentation were more commong, though I also wish it were more entertaining. I thought U.S.! was great. Entertaining. As I said above, I haven’t read House of Leaves yet. Sometimes I love Calvino. Sometimes I feel a little left out reading him. Wait, I’m getting sidetracked when really I wanted to get back to something else you were saying.

          Yes, there’s innovation in using the format of the physical book, and there’s innovation that isn’t directly linked to the literature being in a book, but it’s taking advantage of the fact that it’s no longer coming out of someone’s mouth in a consistent order. Definitely two different beasts, and one of them has greater potential for longevity (since now the physical book has so much literary competition). I’d like to see more of both.

  6. dwoz says:

    As I understand it, Socrates thought written works were a defilement of the “oral story.”

  7. dwoz says:

    As depressing as this will be to ponder…our methods for interfacing with the world around us, and with the information around us, are pretty hard-wired. The book has it’s form not because it happened to be a pretty good stab at the problem that has never been revisited…

    …it’s in the form it is, because that’s a highly “good” form for humans to ingest information.

    There’s a REASON that information is “page-sized,” whether in a book or on a screen or carved on a rock.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, okay, I’m with you up to the “page-sized” stuff. I mean, there is a reason for the size of books, but it has to do, I believe, with the size of the animals parchment was made from and, therefore, how big it was when folded in half, quarters, eighths, etc. to make books.

      I mean, I’m thinking of hieroglyphs, for example. Without the limitations of hide size, stuff carved in rock can in fact be quit large. The Rosetta Stone is almost 4ft. long, even broken. Not really paperback-sized.

      • dwoz says:

        Not necessarily talking about page dimensions, I’m talking about how much information is on a page. That amount of information.

        Not so much the convenience of the materials, but rather the size of our information-ingestion-organs.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Okay, but that still doesn’t make any sense. How is the amount of information on, say, an obelisk or torah scroll the same as on a standard, say, hardcover page or, for that matter, an internet page?

          I guess I’m wondering how you’re quantifying a page-worth of information. And do pictures count as information?

          WTF are you talking about, dwoz?

        • dwoz says:

          There’s even a slogan about it.

          “All the news that’s fit to print” has been changed over the years to “All the news that fits.”


          I think not.

          “comfortable for humans” information density falls within specific ranges. It just is. It’s like “how much milk is in an 8 oz cup?”

        • Becky Palapala says:


          Well at least I’m not alone in having no idea what you’re talking about.

          You don’t seem to know, either.

          But let’s roll with it. Let’s say one English alphabetic letter is one information unit. What, then, is a hieroglyph? An ad for internet service? What is the information value of a number?

          And does a pillar at Karnak = one page? If so, how much is one whole wall at Karnak?

          And how do we determine pages in the torah? Is the size of the podium it rests on the “page,” since it can’t be opened wider than that?

          You can’t quantify any of it. Not only does your sweeping generalization about humans have no apparent basis in history, it has no reason to be true theoretically. There may be a limit to what people are willing to tolerate, but it seems to me this will be a function of patience, habit, expectation, and time–culturally and format-determined. Written language is not an evolutionary characteristic. It’s a cultural one. I can think of no reason why humans should have any “hard-wired” tendencies for interacting with the written word except in the most indirect way, and it certainly doesn’t appear to–nor should it–control the size of texts, the amount of information in texts or pages within texts, or the way in which text is presented to the reader.

        • dwoz says:

          Becky, you have the most amazing way of grabbing an argument by the collar and running down a rathole with it.

          I’ll not continue to humor your antagonistic ad hominem. thanks for your reply. Your choice to overlook the point doesn’t add anything useful to my life.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          dwoz, if it isn’t clear enough, despite my having said it at least twice, I don’t know what your point IS.

          You said humans have a hard-wired limit for information. I said that didn’t make any sense and asked you what you meant and you gave me milk.

          I don’t see any ad hominem here. Nowhere did I say that you must be wrong because of who you are or because of any personal quality of yours. I gave you a whole lot of pretty solid reasons (I think) why your statement sounds wrong to me, and you’ve given me nothing but a vague metaphor.

          At this point, I feel pretty comfortable saying that if I don’t understand your point or I’m barking up the wrong tree, it’s not for lack of trying to understand on my end. It’s up to you to make yourself understood, and if you won’t, you won’t. That’s not my fault.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          I’m traveling and so I don’t have my trusty 27″ monitor, a cable modem, and an ample supply of Red Bull. I’m not going to launch an internet search via iPad unless it’s an emergency, and it’s not.

          But I think the perceptual psychology weenies have some answers here, even allowing for their focus on white industrialized-society students (can’t remember the acronym).

          The visual field (angles H and V) are pretty well-known and I don’t think they vary greatly. And I think the pixels (or other areal measure) that a human being can typically process without great effort is likely to be known, too. The number of symbols on a page, in whatever language we’re talking about. Maybe the ideograph languages could be different.

          Anyway, I don’t know the answer but I feel confident that someone or some set of researchers does, and from that it’s only a short step to talking about how much can reasonably be put on a page and be comprehensible to a large set of people.

          I do think that people — I’m one of them — who work on screens from 9″ to 27″ and many in-between have a gut feeling for what combinations of screen size and resolution are workable. I don’t think that’s very different from talking about how much information people can handle on a page.

          That’s the best I can contribute from a motel in Long Beach. Long Beach? Yes, Long Beach.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Thanks, Don.

          I don’t know what page-size means in dwoz’s comments, but I think you could be close to what he was getting at.

          I was totally into why he quote-marked “good”, but instead we’re talking page-size, and your comments fairly well connects those two thoughts a bit.

        • dwoz says:

          I can’t understand why this is so hard to understand.

          “page-sized” is not like saying “exactly 10.32454 kilograms” or “exactly 352 words.”

          It means, the ever-and-always recurring compartmentalization of information into groupings that are ideal for human consumption.

          Book pages are rarely more than a standard deviation away from a median information density and quantity. Why is that? It’s not just because printing presses are built at that size…printing presses were built FOR that size.

          It’s the same damn thing as what is “meal-sized?” well, you can argue all day about a japanese child’s meal vs an american adult’s meal, and how can you say MEAL-SIZED when you have such disparity….which is just a failure to apply basic cognitive ability to a dynamic measure. A dynamic measure is one that varies per context.

          Most people don’t have any trouble understanding “wall-sized paintings.”

          What I’m saying is that we, as humans, group information in certain groupings, that tend toward not being very far from a mean size.

          Cognitive psychologists talk about the maximum information load that can be placed on a sensory channel. Information is not only grouped on physical boundaries…such as type no smaller than our eyes can reasonably discern, or sheets no larger than our hands can successfully hold (or no smaller), but information is also grouped according to how much we can “gulp” at once.

          Sentences tend to be within a standard deviation of a certain length. Paragraphs likewise. Also, in addition to actual character counts, sentences and paragraphs tend to be naturally divided to maintain an even information density, i.e. approximately the same amount of actual information PER UNIT.


          Aaron, you make a point about making records these days, and how it all changed with George Martin and the Beatles…we went from making records in a linear fashion, to making them in a non-linear fashion. The new, non-linear production techniques allow for recordings that don’t represent physical performance reality…but I think you’re missing a big point, which is that we, as listeners, experience these records in the exact same way as linearly-produced records.

          So my rebuttal to your premise is that books are the way they are, because that’s how we actually experience information. It’s not that the medium forces that mode on us.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Nice summation of what “page-size” means, Dwoz. Thanks for coming back to write that out!

          You have a good point about linearity–in general, yes, people experience albums linearly but that broke down a bit when the industry started gearing itself toward 3 minute singles–people would wear out particular grooves in their records listening to one song over and over again. But overall? I guess I do listen to records linearly. I’m not a skip-and-jumper. However, the records aren’t limited to the type of music that you could play in a live performance–I think that’s a big difference. It’s musicians taking advantage of the medium, though it may not mess with linearity as much as other capabilities of what can be done with sound (I think I’m making vague sense still, but I could be wrong–sleepy).

          As for books–most people again experience them linearly, which is a product of three things, perhaps:

          1. What they are used to.
          2. What the industry prefers to produce.
          3. The way people prefer to experience information? / Or the way people experience information?

          I’m not sure which. Seeing interesting design components / layout, and also non-linear presentation of story does entice me to purchase books more than flat out flowing text. To me that says the book is a work of art. If I just want the story, I can get that from a book on tape (except there you get in to the presentation of the reader, which can really mess with how you experience the book–but in general you’re at least dealing with straight linearity). If I prefer a “designed” layout in a book, does that mean my brain is geared to perceive information differently? Or is that just me being an aesthetically minded person? It doesn’t really conflict with what you’re saying–the amount of information is page-sized, whether it’s a “designed” layout or not. It’s just a thought. A question.

        • dwoz says:

          The only thing I’d add here is that singles were the standard for a long time, THEN they came up with albums. I have many music industry friends who cynically state that the album format was every bit as much about maximizing royalties as it was about any kind of artistic statement. In many ways, I have to agree with them, though the evolution of the format was definitely strongly artistic.

          The problem with print design is one of information mapping. How do you make the design itself carry information? The modulation of words produces meaning…can the modulation of design also produce meaning? How to do that in a way that first off isn’t just self-aggrandizement and buffoonery, and secondly how do you do it so someone unversed in the “language” of design aren’t disadvantaged? (or is that not even a desirable thing to accommodate?).

          What are the semantics and lexicon of information design that convey meaning, instead of simply producing pleasant visual results? A well-designed book is easier to read than a poorly-designed one, mainly because the design GETS OUT OF THE WAY of the information. Getting back to your sound recording analogy, it’s a sure sign that I’ve done something wrong if a listener NOTICES MY MIX, instead of noticing the SONG. The best waiter is the one who is disappeared until the exact moment your wine needs refilling.

          So now we want to turn that 180 degrees, and have the book design move front and center, a peer to the words. To do that, do we need to establish some normative meanings or conventions for design elements? How does that work?

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Dwoz–Beautiful stuff. I’m an instructional designer. That’s what I do to pay bills (and I also happen to love it). We think about this stuff all the time. There are subtle things that can be done to enhance / share information, such as, oh, I don’t know, bolding.

          Bolding = eventually the learner figures out that those are the words that they need to know. Bolding also stands out on the page, which drives the focus of the learner’s mind as they try to study it. It directs the attention to the right thing (well, unless it’s used too often, or whatever).

          Spacing = We create online high school courses. Our students are typically much more comfortable with fewer words per paragraph, less text on the screen, more images, etc. There are all types of learners, but studies have shown that the right mix and treatment of images to text increases the chance of them learning the material.

          There’s so much more of course–this is tip of the iceberg stuff. Of course, we’re dealing with information sharing that will be tested. And to some extent you drive all of your design toward clarity, whereas if you’re creating fiction, some amount of confusion is acceptable (though Becky and others have pointed out that the experimental often leads to more confusion than can be tolerated by the average person). So I don’t know…when you’re designing your book, you choose your audience, just like you do when you write text for anything (well, you may not choose your audience deliberately but either way you’re writing FOR an audience).

          I like what you’re saying about the mix vs. the song–did you listen to the Beatles Love album? (remixed Beatles songs) I thought it was vastly interesting. I think I’m using the word vast too often lately.

          Well put: “The best waiter is the one who is disappeared until the exact moment your wine needs refilling.” The best book design, then, is the one that enhances the story in the best way (er, maybe?). Of course, in some cases, you want the reader to notice that the waiter is missing. Kind of like that Beatles remix album.

          Of course, where you may be going is if you tamper with the form of the book, you introduce conscious analysis of the form rather than the story. That’s completely acceptable to me, when it’s interesting. But then, I don’t want to write stories that just are; I want to interact with what I read, so book design that forces someone to figure it out or assess the design in some way is integral to the literature I’d be most interested in.

          Caveat: Plenty of exceptions, from Dostoevsky to Lee Harper. And of course, interaction doesn’t only come from design–it also comes from any smart work that makes you think (I find Gina Frangello’s work is good that way–provoking, outstandingly smart).

        • dwoz says:

          as it happens, I spent a bit of time designing educational testing. The evil kind. Every fibre of my being screams out against standardized testing, but I will admit that the job was a good one. Is there such a thing as a culture-neutral rubric? Does the test properly bracket the cohort? Is the test comparable across the cohort, and across years of cohorts? Is it multiple choice or multiple clue? You can tell, with a well-designed test, when they’re guessing.

          I remember one day, mid September 2001. I saved a huge amount of money by catching a question and pulling it from a test for 4th graders moments before it turned into 750,000 test booklets. The question standard: “what is the tallest building in the world?”

          I worked in producing on-line tests, that were comparable to paper tests. I hold a patent in the field.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Wow, David. A patent in the field? You’re basically an instructional legend. I thought maybe you were somehow involved in that arena when you elaborated on page-size and all that–wow.

          Chilling 9-11 story, too.

          Culture-neutral rubric? Impossible as long as we’re speaking a language. I mean, even an attempt at creating a new language would basically be a culturally responsive attempt at being culture-neutral. But one can dream…. Yes, one can dream….

        • dwoz says:


          I’m a legend all right.

          It’s funny…when I was working that job, I was at dinner with my cousin, who is a nationally recognized early-childhood education pundit. When he found out where I was working, it was like the room temperature suddenly went down 30 degrees. It took me about 15 minutes to convince him that I, too, was completely philosophically opposed to standardized testing. It utterly subverts the entire purpose of education, unless you think that rote memorization is a good education.

          Testing is like every other field. Things manage to incrementally move forward in spite of the best efforts of incompetent people to utterly fuck things up.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Amazingly, a few outstanding teachers here and there manage to escort a few amazing students through the process. Basically a miracle, each and every one.

    • Aaron Dietz says:

      I like those quote marks around “good”. The current form is upheld by procedural tradition, industrial ability to churn things out, and also the way people are used to digesting information.

      And when you think about it, the standard oral story stripped of its interactivity (which it only has when it’s told, you know, orally), is kind of like a sort of brain-washing.

      Naturally, the high quality works of literature inspire interactivity through provoking thought, but in general, much of literature produced today is meant to be digested / ingested (nice word, dwoz), and not responded to. It tells you something about what state the world is in.

      • dwoz says:

        Ok, so put yer money where your mouth is.

        My personal philosophy is that “capital A” Art is a dialog between the artist and the “consumer” of the art. (be that viewing, reading, listening, touching, imbibing etc.)

        The artist imbues the work with some kind of meaning or message that I call the “objective” aspect of the art. The intended message.

        The consumer takes from the work a meaning or message that I call the “subjective” aspect. The perceived message.

        They don’t have to be the same. I call it a dialog because it really is like a conversation. The consumer engages with the conversation at whatever level they can or desire to.

        The written work, of all of the arts, with the possible exception of drama, is the one in which the Artist is in the driver’s seat. More than any other art, the author controls the conversation, runs the table. This puts the consumer in a more passive stance than, say, a consumer of a Renoir, who can become quite aggressive in their interpretation of what they see.

        So then, to the point. What changes in the dynamic between the author and the reader when the medium becomes more active, the author becomes more passive, and the reader becomes more outspoken?

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Interesting! I think that would be a fine goal–to become a passive author, and let the reader interact more and more. Of course, the result of an absolute success would be all art instigating 100% participation / interpretation by the audience–which would mean complete actualization of the audience’s lives. And maybe zero works would need to be produced at that point. The end of art? It sounds like a bad thing and a good thing.

          I guess it’s a difference in intention. If the goal is limited to specific forms of participation, there’s a limit to the passivity of your art.

        • dwoz says:

          Well, ultimately what the author provides is milieu and context, would you agree? The author modulates the scope and grain of that context. The author may provide a very fine-grained experience, that leaves little room for the reader to overlay their own sensibilities and experiences into the weave, or the author can leave it a little coarse, and let the reader fill in from their own emotional and experiential inventory.

          But I think in all of this, the reader looks for and expects the author to put them into a new place, that they wouldn’t necessarily find themselves in otherwise. If the process changed over to 100% reader interpretation, as you mention, I think the reader loses interest very quickly, because the reader is incapable, in themselves, of breaking their own borders. They need someone else to catalyze that.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          I think I agree with what you’re saying, though I think the reader is always capable of anything–it’s just highly unlikely that any of use transform ourselves without stimuli of some kind initiating the process. 100% reader interpretation would mean the text doesn’t exist. And doesn’t have to. It’s really only a theoretical possibility, but a possibility I couldn’t disprove. Not that I really know what I’m talking about when I mention a text that doesn’t exist. I can’t explain zero, either.

  8. Greg Olear says:

    What we need to do, then, is have our third-best writer lead off the revolution with an avant garde “book” concerning the greed of tax collectors. Tomorrow never knows. 😉

  9. Aaron Talwar says:

    I do think that the majority of books are still a re-creation of a consistent narrative that could just as well be an oral story. I also believe that it is currently being reinvented.

    • Aaron Dietz says:

      On the one hand, the consistent narrative makes it easier to repackage books as other products (which I’ve definitely taken advantage of–I’d never have gotten through the Russian classics if I hadn’t had a job sticking stickers on books for 2 years, where I could listen to headphones). But it’s those books that are shaking things up that interest me. Thanks for stopping by, Aaron!

  10. Art Edwards says:

    The question of why books haven’t changed much is a good one. One answer might be that the form is pretty much perfect. I’m not convinced it needs to change, or that, if it does change, the final product would still be a book.

    I think the biggest problem with books is that writers want to write them at the expense of other forms. We’re afraid that what we create, in the end, might not be a book, missing out on the emotional cache that being the author of a book gives us.

    • Aaron Dietz says:

      It’s a fair point: it doesn’t need to change. But sometimes I feel like a writer not participating in the design or layout is like an oral story teller not using the inflection of their voice to aid in telling the story.

      You may have lost me on the writers writing them at the expense of other forms–like writers writing books instead of eBooks, or instead of movies, or instead of something else?

      • Art Edwards says:

        Like writers writing books instead of movies, or multimedia pages, or some other future medium I can’t imagine. I’d wager books still hold a special place in most people’s psyches. If I’ve written a book, that’s one thing. If I’ve created an elaborate narrative website with lots of multimedia elements, that’s another. I think we view these creations differently, and still give the book author more credibility. I don’t think it’s fair, but I think it’s out there.

        Maybe I’m just talking about myself.

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          Ah, that is true! I mean, if you write a screenplay, chances are you won’t like what they do with it when it’s turned into a movie, anyway. And culturally we have no set way to respect / honor / rank websites and web-based multimedia projects–or at least, there is no dominant Top 20 websites list, like there is with the New York Times. You have a very good point–books are more solidified culturally. They have a tradition. Websites are viewed as ephemeral.

  11. […] don’t. I mean, I know I’ve basically said the book should be reinvented, but that’s not what I was really getting at. I just think a writer should consider the format in […]

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