Category Archives: Nabokov

EE goes on hiatus

EE is going on indefinite hiatus.  Read through these comments over at Donigan Merritt’s blog if you’d like to know why.

Long story short: I’ve got work to do.  The manuscript requires finishing, and all my efforts, spare and otherwise.  I enjoy the hell out of writing this blog but it is rather a samsaric activity.  It requires a prodigious amount of time to be done well and that’s the only way to do it.

So, for now, onwards and upwards with the manuscript.  To wit:

The horse-drawn tram has vanished, and so will the trolley, and some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century, wishing to portray our time, will go to a museum of technological history and locate a hundred-year-old streetcar, yellow, uncouth, with old-fashioned curved seats, and in a museum of old costumes dig up a black, shiny-buttoned conductor’s uniform.  Then he will go home and compile a description of Berlin streets in bygone days.  Everything, every trifle, will be valuable and meaningful: the conductor’s purse, the advertisement over the window, that peculiar jolting motion which our great-grandchildren will perhaps imagine – everything will be ennobled and justified by its age.

I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindle mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for and elegant masquerade.

– Vladimir Nabokov (from “A Guide to Berlin”)

E-book chapter mashups?

The good folks at Feedbooks are improving their publishing application programming interface (API).

Writers can now “switch to the Table of Contents (ToC) of your book while editing, to drag & drop parts/chapters/sections and re-order them the way that you want.”

Sounds very user-friendly—another online publishing option for potential authors.

But quickly reading the post the first time, I mistakenly thought Feedbooks was going to let the reader perform these in-book mashups. It got me to thinking: why not?

When a mashup will work

For novels that rely on straightforward linear progression, a mashup probably wouldn’t work. But not all novels do. The Sound and the Fury, for instance, or David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (available as DRMed Kindlebook). Or imagine a novel written around a cluster of characters. You, the reader, follow the characters along as they intrigue you, reading the book in an order of your own choosing. (Note: I’m working on a manuscript along these lines.)



Hard to fathom the amount of technical work that would be required to create such a beast, both in terms of actual writing and e-book API. It would have to be done very, very well. The “hypernovels” of the 90s that I’ve seen are dismal failures, no improvement on the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, which at least had the virtue of being entertaining.

In Pale Fire, a protype for e-book mash-ups?

The only really good book I can think of written in this way is Nabokov’s masterwork Pale Fire, conceived as a commentary on a 999-line poem. The poet himself has been killed by a man who may or may not have been sent to assassinate the commentator, who may or may not be the mad exiled king of a conquered principality, which may or may not exist.

Mashup prototype?

Mashup prototype?

You can’t just read this book chapter by chapter. You have to page back and forth between poem and commentary and index. The prototype for e-book mash-ups?

Undoubtedly there are more. Italo Calvino? Maybe the original “postmodern” novel, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy?

Possibly this would be a more effective technique for nonfiction. For instance, allowing a reader to order the chapters in a how-to book as they find them relevant. Or history books. For instance, allowing me to get to the good stuff connecting 12th-century Heian-era Kyoto to modern-day Tokyo while skipping over the hackneyed samurai derring-do in between. Bringing the sort of hop-scotching link-jumping we associate on the internet to e-books, while maintaining a semblance of chapter order.

Certainly this would be a break from reading tradition, but that’s already happening on the Internet. (How many hyperlinks have you clicked on so far?) I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a bad thing to follow your clicks down the rabbit-hole, as long as it doesn’t involve too much time watching skateboarding rabbits.

I think e-books can be a lot more than just a convenient offshoots of paper books. E-books with this sort of functionality built in would allow you to zero in on what fascinates you most. Sort of a hybrid between website and paper book. The sort of thing that could send e-books in a really radical new direction.

Note: This post originally appeared at TeleRead.

Update:  Reader Timothy suggests A Spoon River Anthology as one prospect for a mashup.  Excellent idea.  Seem to be an ideal candidate for me.

And I thought of one more: Winesburg, Ohio.  You could read this in all sorts of orders, if you were so inclined and had the e-book capability to do so.  (Of course, you could also just flip around as you pleased in a paper book.)