Horizons expand for the e-book with new literary app

Pub date October 2, 2012
SectionPixel Vision

When you think about it, e-readers haven’t done much to change the reading experience. Besides their portability and the easy access they provide to catalogues of titles, the level of interaction, font, even the physical motion involved with turning pages are pretty much identical to “brick and mortar” books. E-readers and their e-books, especially compared to the world of apps, can seem downright ordinary. But bored tech-novel enthusiasts have cause to rejoice. An app-literary project launched yesterday, from the minds behind McSweeney’s — and backed by everyone’s favorite radio nerd, Ira Glass — named The Silent History aims to change up the e-reading experience.

The cohort behind this undertaking is comprised of the former publisher of McSweeney’s Eli Horowitz, McSweeney’s alum Russell Quinn, and authors Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett, all of whom have had many a fancy byline. Inspired by Charles Dickens, The Wire , Studs Terkel, and Lawnmower Man, the four banded together to create an app that we found on a Guardian test run to be an intriguing and lively combination of GPS-based storytelling and serialized fiction. (Glass is said to be a fan of the app, he and twee filmmaker Miranda July lend their narration to the app’s promotional trailer.)

The idea for Silent History originated from Horowitz’s refusal to believe that digitized technology and print are naturally adversarial. 

“It seemed like people were viewing technology and novels as enemies,” Horowitz told us in an email interview. “As if books had to surrender to some wave of progress —- but actually these new devices should open up new possibilities. We wanted to take an early step down that path.” 

Users of Silent History can dive into prose in two ways. The app’s “testimonial” section is a nod to the serialized fiction series of magazine past. The app’s testimonials are organized into volumes in which characters deliver 15 minutes of storytelling, with a new testimonial uploaded daily to the user’s device so that the story unfolds as it is read. The first novel on the new app will be an eponymous-titled 160,000-word work written by all four of the authors.

GPS-linked “field reports” are another way to explore — browse the globe for user-generated storylines connected to spots on Silent History’s global map. As of this writing there are 20 of these reports in San Francisco. 

Unfazed by the fact that he and his group are not among the first to attempt to remake the e-book, Derby predicted that his team’s take is the one that will stick. 

“Our ambition was to go as big as possible with the project. We’re certainly not the first people to do location-based storytelling or serialized digital fiction, but I think one reason that the existing attempts haven’t gotten a ton of traction has been the lack of depth. We’ve written an entire novel. And that’s just part of the project — it doesn’t take into account all of the field reports spread throughout the world. If this project tanks, it won’t be because we sacrificed narrative richness to achieve some technical goal. It’ll be because of something else we obviously didn’t think of when we were making this thing.” 

Download the app at www.thesilenthistory.com