October 31st, 2008


The Golden Notebook is My Spam

This arrived in my email today:

Dear Ben Peek,

On November 10th, The Institute for the Future of the Book kicks off an experiment in close reading. Seven women will read Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and carry on a conversation in the margins. The idea for the project arose out of my experience re-reading the novel in the summer of 2007 just before Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Golden Notebook was one of the two or three most influential books of my youth and I decided I wanted to "try it on" again after so many years. It turned out to be one of the most interesting reading experiences of my life. With an interval of thirty-seven years the lens of perception was so different; things that stood out the first-time around were now of lesser importance, and entire themes I missed the first time came front and center. When I told my younger colleagues what I was reading, I was surprised that not one of them had read it, not even the ones with degrees in English literature. It occurred to me that it would be very interesting to eavesdrop on a conversation between two readers, one under thirty, one over fifty or sixty, in which they react to the book and to each other's reactions. And then of course I realized that we now actually have the technology to do just that. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Meade, my colleague and director of if:book London, the Arts Council England enthusiastically and generously agreed to fund the project. Chris was also the link to Doris Lessing who through her publisher HarperCollins signed on with the rights to putting the entire text of the novel online.

Fundamentally this is an experiment in how the web might be used as a space for collaborative close-reading. We don't yet understand how to model a complex conversation in the web's two-dimensional environment and we're hoping this experiment will help us learn what's necessary to make this sort of collaboration work as well as possible. In addition to making comments in the margin, we expect that the readers will also record their reactions to the process in a group blog. In the public forum, everyone who is reading along and following the conversation can post their comments on the book and the process itself.

I'm writing you now with the hope that you will help spread the word to everyone who might be interested in following along and participating in the forum discussions.

Thank you

Bob Stein

p.s. One last note. This is not essentially an experiment in online reading itself. Although the online version of the text is quite readable, for now, we believe books made of paper still have a substantial advantage over the screen for sustained reading of a linear narrative. So you may also want to suggest to your readers that they order copies of the book now. Whichever edition of the book someone reads (US, UK or online), there is a navigation bar at the top of the online page will help locate them within the conversation.

Now, I don't know Stein, or have any contact with anyone involved in the project, and I've just been spammed with it, really, but it caught my attention.

It caught my attention because I'm a cynic, and his pitch of the idea translates into 'Some guy was reading Lessing and decided that he could get some cash for a project by having a minority--in this case, women--read a novel by Lessing and drawn commentary from it.'

Mostly, I just ignore this kind of shit, because I don't particularly want to validate it on my blog. I'm not sure why, but this blog here has a bit of currency, and occasionally people want to use that. But in this case, the site itself opens up to a whole kind of comedy. You might think, as I did, that Stein found readers who were ordinary, every day folk, or at least grabbed readers who came from a wide variety of social, cultural, and economic backgrounds, and to a degree he has done that. The readers appear to be from different areas in the world, but they share, every single one of them, in the fact that each of them is educated and well read and, I might add, published. Yes, each one of these women involved in the reading are writers, which means, no doubt, that the scribbles in the margins are going to be filled with comments about their own work, how they wish they could do that, or were influenced by it, because the whole thing turns, now, into an advertising campaign for those readers, using Lessing's own fame to help promote themselves. Like leeches, they're try and sponge a bit of blood out of the old girl for their own projects. Perhaps I'll be wrong about that, but I suspect not.

The people involved are, I'm sure, not going to be too pleased by my cynical reading of the project, but I've been spammed for a bit of free advertising and, frankly, that can go both ways. Sometimes I'll get something and I'll jazz to a project. Sometimes I'll get something and I'll laugh at it and link it because I think it's utterly self serving and ridiculous.

This is one of those times.