The idea for this post essentially began a decade ago. I’ve started and junked about five past version about the apparent debate over real books vs audio & ebooks. I’m amazed anyone thinks it’s valid to challenge how anyone chooses to consume literature when it’s literally the same content in a different format. Ebooks and audio books are not the only fiction formats subject to such snobbery though.
The funniest thing about this “real book” snobbery is that both pictorial and spoken storytelling predate the written word by millennia.
Writing goes back to China around 5000BC give or take and even that is a series of numbers, not letters or words. The first words appear around 3300BC in Egypt with “proto-hieroglyphs.” That essentially makes storytelling in pictorial form the oldest that leaves a permanent record. Audio storytelling (which does not leave a record) is far older though naturally we have and will find no evidence for this. We learnt to speak before we learnt to write – something we know through biological evolution.
How can anyone fail to be impressed with the Lascaux Caves, dated to around 17,000 years old? The oldest such cave art is from Indonesia, dated to 44,000 years and it appears to show fantastical human hybrids. If this Indonesia cave art is telling a story for the purpose of entertainment, it predates the written word by an eye-watering 44,000 years.
The first written books appeared in the form of scrolls and parchment and would remain that way for thousands of years. Acknowledged as the first true work of fiction, the Epic of Gilgamesh was compiled on tablets. Print books? They appeared around the 7th century when the first bound books appear in China. That spread to Europe and that was taken up by monks who spent a lot of time copying beautifully illustrated bibles and works from classical thinkers. At which point books were large and heavy tomes, hand copies over hundreds of hours by highly-skilled monks.
The Printing Press revolutionised distribution of both fiction and non-fiction. The first book ever printed is reported to be The Bible but it didn’t stop there. This is a simplified summary, but it led to newspapers and the eventual expansion of the fiction market which brought prices down and opened physical books up to mass appeal. The mass market paperback did not arrive until the 1960s by which time, mass pictorial storytelling was already a couple of decades old, developing out of comic strips in newspapers.
So How are Mass Market Print Books the Only “Proper Books”?
Which is the question I always ask people who say they prefer “proper books” quickly followed up by a slightly sarcastic “do you mean made from tempered leather and vellum and hand copied by monks or the cheap, nasty paperbacks that fall apart after a couple of years?” which usually results in silence, a block, or a deleted post. This snobbery is absurd – we all need our entertainment and we all have different ways in which we engage with them.
Not everyone can read physical books. Invisible disabilities like dyslexia and others in that family make reading some fonts difficult. Irlen Syndrome is another where the disability makes it difficult to read certain colour contrasts which users remedy with different coloured backgrounds and changing the font size and colour. Sight impairment and rheumatism also contribute to the ability to read so-called “proper books.”
Comic books and graphic novels have been subject to sustained mockery for decades. But as we see above, pictorial storytelling predates the written word by tens of thousands of years. This snobbery is something that ebooks are now subject to along with graphic novels and comics. I wonder how much this is the industry trying to protect itself? That question is beyond the scope of this article.
New Media: ARGs and ARSs
The internet is a digital form of all traditional media and almost as soon as the internet became widely available, fiction found its way onto the web. We all remember getting spooky or scary stories by email. Most of these are called “urban legends for the internet age” now or “internet legends.” Presented as true, most of us saw them for what they were – just storytelling.
The internet also gave us YouTube and social media. Combined, those things have given us two new forms of storytelling that are just as valid as cave art, hand copied books, mass market paperbacks, audio books and graphic novels: ARGs and ARSs. But what are they?
Augmented reality games and augmented reality stories. An augmented reality game uses a range of media to tell a story and encourage participation. One of the best examples is Hi I’m Mary Mary which finished last year. It started on YouTube, the chronicles of a young woman claiming to be trapped in a duplicate of her parents’ home and unable to escape. By day, nothing happens but she can’t get out. At night, she’s subject to all manner of horrors.
As she went around the house and the night drew on, things became more disturbing. But what made this a game? The account posed questions and calls for help on Twitter, asking for followers to make suggestions about what to do and where to go in the house. This is an augmented reality game.
An ARS simply lacks the interactivity. It’s more like a film or a book with regular chapters and story development, using the real world to create a story, and (like ARGs) complemented using other media such as Twitter, Instagram, TikTok etc. Examples include Daisy Brown (which finished two years ago) and The Sun Vanished which was later revealed as a viral marketing campaign for an independent filmmaker. It still told a story.
The above channels are highly creative. Rather than looking down my nose at them because they’re not an assemblage of paper, card, glue and ink. Instead, I am in awe of the range of creativity and planning it takes to develop something like the stories mentioned above. There are many more and GenZ creators are playing out ARS on TikTok with each new video a new chapter in their story.
Finally, a Plea…
In these difficult times, let’s celebrate diversity in creativity instead of mocking it. Let’s unite around the human ingenuity to tell a good yarn and use a range of technologies – both traditional and new – in presenting the ideas that go around our heads.
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