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Considering the Forms of Boooks

People have probably been telling and listening to stories since we first talked to each other at all, and we are at it still. Spoken stories, the shortest epigrams and jokes or the longest epics, take as long to be heard as they take to tell. In the old days, and still today when we choose, the listener is there, committed to hearing the tale, and the storyteller controls the telling. Once told, the tale rests until someone chooses to tell it again, and there is no guarantee that the tale is ever told twice in the same form. Indeed, some storytellers make a virtue of this, and work with each new audience, shaping their tales anew with each telling.

People started writing down their stories a long time ago, and we have books written onto clay and wax tablets, stone, silk, vellum, parchment, papyrus…if the material will hold a mark there may be a book made from it. Sometimes only one copy of the book is made at a time; sometimes scriptoriums or printing presses make many copies of the same book; sometimes books go through multiple or variant drafts, or editions or translations; and for all these reasons there may be variations from one copy of a book to another; but we do not usually consider that these variations make different books. Perhaps formerly the writer had some expectation that the book’s reader would start at the beginning and follow the tale straight through to its end; while latterly writers have played with form, and written tales that make other suggestions. It is the nature of the making of fixed marks, however, that no matter the writer’s intent or how the book is made, the tale is finally committed to that fixed form, and does not change thereafter. The reader, though, will read as much of that story, or as little, or as often as they will, and thus plays their own part in making the book they read.

Recently, we have been able to record the spoken stories, releasing the listener from the need to be present as the tale is told. The listener to an audio book or podcast has a degree of control. They may listen as if present at the telling, if they so choose. Or they may change the experience: select a part, listen again, skip backwards and forwards, pause and restart, thus departing from the storyteller’s intent, and imposing some of the listener’s self upon the story. Perhaps when they listen in this way their experience is more akin to reading a book that is read than hearing a story told.

We can do everything we did before when we made and heard or read a story, but now there are new possibilities too. We have recently found some new ways of making books: writers’ marks and storytellers’ tales may now be encoded and presented to the reader digitally as e-books and audiobooks, via computers, and the internet. It seems obvious that this gives writers new tools for writing and sharing their books: in digital form stories need not be linear; nor need their final form be fixed before they are sent out into the world. Nor does a writer need (so much) help from publisher and printing press to make many copies of their book, nor from booksellers to distribute those copies until they find their readers. There are also new forms of collaboration between readers and writers, giving readers parts to play in the shaping the final forms of written stories. However, it is not quite so obvious (at least to this writer) that there are new ways of reading: readers must still bring their own selves to engage with a writer’s intent, and still have the same control over their reading of any one version of the tale.

Of the making and reading of books, spoken or written, heard or read, true to the storyteller’s intent or made of your own reading, while there are stories there is no reason there should ever be an end.

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Caroline M

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