Three new ways to re-think Digital Literature

In my last blog post, I ended by writing that artists and writers need to use “early e-reading technologies as sandboxes for new modes of literature” and that the e-book, as it is now, doesn’t do enough to push this potential for experimentation. I urged writers to start re-thinking concepts of literature in the digital age.

kindle mixing with a typewriterI am not the only writer out there thinking about the e-book’s new potential. Today, I’d like to highlight three examples of writers who take on this challenge. These three approaches are nothing alike, and none of them do what is typical of the e-book today, which is to take a standard, printed novel and put it on a screen (sort of boring). What all three of these approaches have going for them is that they take standard literary modes (the novel, the poem, the art book) and force them to interact with new digital modes (the Web page, the mix tape, the webcam). Both old and new are needed in order for the reader to gain a full experience. This is significant because with most commercially available digital reading, there is not much attempt to play with form.

So here we go:

1. Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge. This novel takes on a post-9/11 America as its subject matter, but in doing so, it plays with 21st Century notions of reading narrative. Luminous Airplanes is a novel published in the traditional print (or e-book) way, but the novel is only fully realized through, an interactive journal/map that chronicles the novel’s protagonist. As Jesse Miller puts it in an excellent look at Luminous Airplanes over at,

As I clicked my way through La Farge’s hypertext, I had the distinct feeling that I was being prepared to face the very conditions that so troubled the novel’s protagonist, navigating the complex web of decisions that makes up life both on and off the web. La Farge has clearly presented the novel as at a small-scale version of the e-world open for the reader to both reflect on and explore.

Not only is La Farge tapping into the uncertainty of the 21st Century through fiction, he is commenting on the sort of hyperreality faced in the digital landscape and its unknown potential for change.

2. Jason and the Beast, “Made This For You: the Mix Tape as Literature.” Jason Braun is a fellow friend and colleague of mine, and he is doing some cool things with mixed media, re-envisioning what literature can do along the way. Recently, Jason wrote an article (“If the Book is Dead, then Why Buy a Zombie?”) for Jane Friedman’s blog where he presents his own vision for what the e-book should do:

The future of the book is limited only by our definition. We could pour narratives, poems, memoirs, how-tos, and manifestos into innumerable forms:

  • Mix tapes
  • Audio tours
  • Tagging online photos with links to audio, wikis, and narrative maps
  • GPS-enabled apps that start the campfire songs for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as they reach the Ozark mountain peak corresponding to longitude and latitude pre-programmed by the scout master.
  • An e-book in which the “author” has allowed readers not just to choose their own adventures, but to write the work’s last chapter and/or change it daily according to the number of click votes it receives on the book’s webpage. That would beat the hell out of book club.

This vision of the future of the book becomes reality in Jason’s latest album, “Made This For You: The Mix Tape as Literature,” which is available at his web site, In the album, Jason mixes his poetry and lyrics with clips of interviews (including some approaches to digital literature from Ander Monson and Al Katkowsky), and random snippets of conversation. In this way, the mix tape feels more like a modern work of literature than many realist works of fiction. It’s great stuff.

3. Between Page and Screen by Amaranth Borsuk & Brad Bouse. This interactive book takes an extended metaphor (the way we interact with text) and turns it into a narrative. The book itself is actually a collection of printed squares on each page that work like a QR Code works, except they interact with a reader’s webcam. In order to read the text, the reader must turn on his/her webcam and position the open book near the webcam. Animated text appears on the screen, but while reading, the reader is forced to reflect on the act of reading–like reading into a digital mirror. Design blog imprint talks about it in this way:

Soon enough, the reading experience pulls you in like any other. Word-play animations splice up the word “hear” into “he” and “ear.” The letters between P and S speak to the project’s larger themes, making assertions like “page don’t cage me in” and “a screen is a shield, but also a veil”; asking questions like “What are boundaries anyway?”

So even though it is not a traditional literary approach, the experience is one similar to reading a novel or any other work.

Of course, there are many more ways to play with digital literature. This represents starting points, and I hope that more ideas will come about as technology changes.

Have any other interesting or experimental approaches to literature? Share them, with links, in the comments.