Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett
I’m nearing the end of this 500+ page novel The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett – a paperback original due out in June of this year from FSG. Set in a future America where a whole generation of children are born without the ability to speak or comprehend spoken languages, it’s a creepy, fascinating thought experiment on the way we would treat such people, where they fit into society, and the perils of trying to fix those who are not necessarily broken. The story is told on a chronological timeline comprised of narratives by different pivotal characters involved in the central plot – more on that in a minute. On the back of the book is a small mention that this book “began as an app” followed by a link to www.thesilenthistory.com. “Say what?” I asked. And down the internet rabbit hole I went.
Co-author Eli Horowitz is the former managing editor and publisher at McSweeney’s who, at one point, became bummed out that eBooks were lacking in style points, compared to traditional books.
“We spent a lot of time making these print books into beautiful objects. And it seemed depressing to just squeeze them into a device. The prettiest e-book was still a little uglier than the worst book.”
So, he decided to create something wholly original for the digital market. Together with Matt Derby, Kevin Moffett, and Russell Quinn, he sketched out a 160,000 word novel about this generation of kids born without the ability to speak or comprehend human language. Presented in the form of 120 testimonial narratives “in the form of oral histories told by characters directly affected by the condition — parents, teachers, doctors, cult leaders, faith healers, and government officials, with unexpected intersections and unifying narratives.” These 120 narratives were put into a slick iPhone app and serialized, releasing one per day beginning in the fall of 2012. Pretty groundbreaking in its own right. But then the fellas added another element – enhancing these testimonials are “field reports,” written by readers of the testimonials (ie: you and me.) The only way to access these reports is to be physically at the location where they were logged by their author – this uses the GPS built into your mobile device & unlocks the reports as you near the location. (I don’t know how well this element would work in reality, but it’s pretty ingenious as far as interactivity with the reader.)
As the book purist that I am, I have some mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, I think that this sort of interactivity is what allows the eBook to transcend standard fare and venture into something else altogether. Is it how I personally would like to read a book? No way. I can see the inherent value in serializing a story, formatted as such for the digital reader, even though this is not how I prefer to get my reading material. (My complete ignorance of the existence of the app version should tell you a lot.) But when we reach the part where the audience begins world-building along with the authors… that just don’t feel right to me. Of course, this is just one man’s opinion, but allowing the reader to take part in the creation of the novel’s backstory threatens the authenticity of the art form itself.
And now, here are a couple points of irony to bolster my “argument”: the story of The Silent History has a lot to do with the advent of technology designed to “help” these “silents” be able to interact with the rest of humanity. For a while, most people think this is a great thing – a neurological implant device that allows silents to speak and understand language – but there are some silent holdouts who would rather embrace who they were born to be, rather than follow the mandates of the rest of this tech-loving society. Society says differently and there are thousands of forced implantations of these devices, creating a new generation of kids who were born silent, but were implanted at birth. (You KNOW this will be a problem down the road.) Eventually, said society reaches that inevitable breaking point and it becomes apparent that the tech doesn’t preserve the soul and does nothing for making silents any happier in their lives.
This isn’t to say that we are headed this way, based on the publishing trajectory this particular book has taken, but still, it’s an interesting dichotomy.
The thing is, based on the paperback book I’ve been reading, the novel stands up as a pretty great story all on its own. The other piece of irony, however, is that this may be the most poorly bound advance reading copy I’ve ever had, as every 10th page falls out in my hands as I read.
I’d say that this is beside the point, but is it? Is this actually some sinister plot by the authors and their publisher?? Is it that the true value of this narrative lies in the digitized version, leaving the dusty paperback to rot and fall apart?! You can’t force me to get your eBook implant!!!