Making sure a print book "translates" well, experience-wise, on a Kindle or iPad is hard enough for normal publishers to do — but it's extra-challenging for Visual Editions, the arty fiction publisher that turns every book into a uniquely physical objet d'art all its own. But it's found an intriguing solution for its latest offering, Mark Saporta's "book in a box" Composition No.1, whose unbound pages are meant to be read in any order.Here's what the dead-tree version looks like.
Visual Editions' solution for translating that nonlinear experience to an iPad app is simple, ingenious, and appropriately puckish: the hundreds of digital "pages" of Composition No.1 flash onscreen so fast you can't possibly read them until you touch the screen with your finger to "pause" the frenetic shuffling. As soon as you lift that finger, the pages start flashing by in a random blur again. You want "engagement" from your readers, publishers? Well, this is certainly one way to get it: Composition No.1 literally forces you to pay attention to every page, mentally and physically.
Is it an irritating experience at first? Yes. But is that such a bad thing? In this particular context, maybe not: After all, Visual Editions isn't in the publishing-and-reading business as much as it's in the "think differently about publishing-and-reading" business. For me, reading the digital version of Composition No.1 was actually more unpredictably thought-provoking about what reading is than the print version would have been — let's face it, the nonlinear book-in-a-box thing has been done before. Leafing through a box full of unbound pages is a tranquil, deliberate experience, whereas the iPad version is aggressively playful, almost confrontational — more like wrestling than reading. What other book out there has to be literally held down in order to be read? I'm not sure there should be any other books that do this, but I'm glad Visual Editions is out there blazing these trails all the same.