iBooks, eBooks, and Episodic Writing

Apple announced a new version of iBooks for iPad a few weeks ago, focusing on how it can deliver inexpensive textbooks to students. It’s being pushed as a revolution in education, but does the same update have applicability outside of the classroom?

Aside from the (often gimmicky) interactive widgets and other benefits of electronic books, they offer “current” as another advantage of electronic books. The main idea here, in the context of textbooks, is that a new edition can be distributed inexpensively, without the need to buy a new 5-pound $300 book every year. I see potential for another use: episodic fiction.

Serial publishing is not new. When advances in technology and economy allowed magazines to be widely distributed in the 19th century, it was popular for authors to release long works in short segments. As magazines shifted their focus away from episodic fiction and television replaced that niche, the idea of a serialized work of text started to die (with occasional exceptions, like Stephen King’s The Green Mile). Today, we’re facing more leaps in technology and in the economics of distribution that, I think, have potential to bring serial fiction back.

Imagine this: you hear about an author releasing a story with an intriguing premise. You download the first “episode,” then every, say, Wednesday, you get a notification alerting you that a new episode is out. Either for a small fee per episode (99 cents seems fair) or a flat “season pass,” you get new content every Wednesday for a few months, automatically updated and waiting for you when you open iBooks.

I’m not sure if this is how iBooks currently works (the new textbook stuff, as usual, locks out Canadians), but they seem to be going in that direction with the “books as apps” model. It’s not unique to Apple, either; the same thing could easily be implemented on any other e-reader with minor tweaks. It’s been attempted, but Apple’s app model demonstrates how streamlined it could be1. And in a generation that often prefers TV to movies and Twitter to blogs, maybe we’re ready for bite-sized fiction’s big comeback.

Would you buy a book that updates itself with new content every week? Really, I’m asking, because I have a few stories in the file drawer, and I’m seriously considering experimenting to try turning these tumultuous times into something awesome.

1 Note that Apple’s new updates come with a giant catch: a ridiculous license agreement. The main problem is that if you use iBooks Author to create a work, you can only sell that work through iTunes. It’s equivalent to buying a guitar, then finding an attached note saying you can only sell your music through Gibson’s store. Ridiculous. Hopefully this gets changed, or people realize simple workarounds (change one word in the file using different software; tada! All-new work that can be sold wherever you want).

Book Review: Moonwalking With Einstein, by Joshua Foer

Memory is often taken for granted in a world where paper and transistors store information better than neurons ever could. Moonwalking With Einstein shines a much-needed light on the art of memorization. It could have been a dry collection of basic science and light philosophy on the subject, but Foer makes it riveting by telling the story of his own head-first dive into the world of memory as sport.

I had no idea this went on, but every year, there are regional and worldwide memory championships in which people compete to perform seemingly superhuman feats of memory, such as memorizing decks of cards as fast as possible, or recalling hundreds of random numbers. After covering one of these events, Foer became so curious that he began training to participate himself.

What he discovered is that these impressive acts of memorization actually boil down to a few simple tricks that anyone can learn. While not a how-to manual, the tricks are simple enough that anyone can pick them up just by reading about how Foer learned them. I can still recall a list of 15 unusual items (in order) that Foer’s mentor, Ed Cooke, used to first teach the memory palace technique. It’s only a matter of practice and refinement for anyone, no matter how forgetful, to memorize several decks of cards.

This humanization of the extraordinary carries throughout the book. Foer himself keeps a modest tone about his damn impressive accomplishments, emphasizing that he’s just a regular forgetful dude who lives in his parents’ basement. The other memory championship contestants, too, can do amazing things during the contest, but it’s clear that the ability to memorize a poem doesn’t translate to a successful personal life.

In fact, Foer is critical of those who do profit from using memory tricks. His contempt for Tony Buzan, the entrepreneur who makes millions on books and sessions related to memory, comes through every time Buzan’s name comes up. He might as well add “coughBULLSHITcough” after every claim of Buzan’s. More substantially, a tangent on savantism takes a strange turn when Foer begins to suspect that one self-proclaimed1 memory savant, Daniel Tammet, may have more in common with the memory championship contestants than with Rain Man2. When Foer confronts him about it directly, things get a bit uncomfortable.

By wrapping fascinating facts and anecdotes about memory up with his own story, Foer keeps it riveting throughout. This is one of those books that I literally had trouble putting down. Anyone with even a passing interest in the human mind should remember to stick Moonwalking With Einstein in their brain hole.

1 And expert-proclaimed; psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes relation) studied Tammet and was more convinced of his traditional savantism.

2 The inspiration for Rain Man, Kim Peek, also makes an appearance and is more convincing as having freakish memory naturally.

Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

[Very minor spoilers lie ahead]

The Hunger Games tells the story of a teen girl living in a future, post-post-apocalyptic world, where an obviously-evil government keeps the people in line by throwing a handful of them into a televised fight to the death in an outdoor arena once a year. Although it doesn’t happen right away (more on that later), it’s pretty easy to guess that she gets involved in the titular Hunger Games.

The concept may sound like a sci-fi trope, but Collins does a good job of painting a world that feels unique despite borrowing pieces from other stories in its genres. The first third or so of the book is mostly setup for the inevitable beginning of the Games. It could’ve been boring, knowing the story is taking its time to begin, but it’s interesting enough due to the colourful character development, world-building, and writing style.

Then the action kicks into gear, and something odd happens. The writing quality drops immediately the moment the Hunger Games actually begin. It’s as if the latter two-thirds were written by another author (or an author who wrote the first chapters years after the latter ones). What begins as straightforward YA-level prose begins sounding like a teenager’s blog. Rambling tangents come back with “anyway”, ellipses replace proper punctuation, and there are outright typos. I half-expected sentences to start ending in “lol.”

It’s not too distracting, and makes some sense given the first-person narrator’s age, but the fluctuation in style was a bit jarring.

Anyway, the story itself is about what you’d expect given the premise. There is some mild satire of reality television and some mild violence (but this ain’t no Battle Royale). Some unexpected twists have impact, but some expected showdowns are a letdown. Maybe it’s a further subtle bit of satire to have some of the major plot points happen “off camera,” but it’s anticlimactic storytelling. Despite my pickiness, it’s a good story that’s often hard to put down, and anyone who’s up with the premise would enjoy it. I’m looking forward to the movie.

This was also the first book I read on a Kindle. I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, it was a joy being able to sit under a tree in the sunshine (yeah, took me a while to get around to this review) with the tiny Kindle in one hand, flipping pages with the push of a button. On the other, when I wanted to skim the book while writing this review, I couldn’t. And what if I wanted to come back to it in 10 years? If technology changes too much, or Amazon bites the bullet, or I get another company’s incompatible device, my DRM-infected e-book is lost.

I’ll probably only use the Kindle for cheap books I’ll never want to read again. Hunger Games fits that bill.