Monday, July 12, 2010


Penguin UK publishers did this cool digital storytelling project a couple years ago, called "We Tell Stories." They invited six of their authors to draw inspiration from one of the classic novels in the publisher's catalog, and create "tales that take full advantage of the immediacy, connectivity and interactivity that is now possible" online. The website adds, "These stories could not have been written 200, 20 or even 2 years ago." Old meets new, that sort of thing.

I have my favorites among the stories, but overall the results are enlightening and inventive. In order of their appearance: Charles Cumming pays homage to "The 39 Steps" in his story "The 21 Steps," which uses Google maps to chart the mysterious course of a man who gets caught up in an international conspiracy. In the form of a blog by a girl and another by her parents, Toby Litt takes off from "The Haunted Dolls' House" to document a family's move into a possibly haunted old house. Kevin Brooks allows users to customize their own fairy tale, not unlike those old "choose your own adventure" books, by letting them name characters or select personal characteristics they embody or what actions they take. The duo of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (who cutely call themselves Nicci French) allowed readers to watch as they wrote a story live and in real-time for an hour each night over the course of a week. In "Hard Times," authors Matt Nelson and Nicholas Felton take inspiration from the Dickens novel of the same name as they document the media-saturated lives of today's teenagers. And finally, Mohsin Hamid draws from the "Tales from the Thousand and One Nights" (a personal favorite of mine), and readers direct a former general around a labyrinth of memory and stories.

These are not retellings of old stories or novels, but modern-day interpretations for the web that take off from classic novels. Several of the stories created a kind of physical space -- or at least a digital representation of a physical space, like on Google Maps, or the labyrinth in the "1001 Nights"-inspired story. Such spaces allow the reader to poke around the geography of the story in a different way than they might in a book. Readers of novels can always revisit favorite passages or even places described in a book, but here the presentation is more like a map, and readers are somewhat more like players or participants.

Now here's where I play the grumpy skeptic for a second. These stories were entertaining in content and clever in format, but I'm still not convinced that they engage the imagination any better than a good novel or short story does. Sure, we get to name the characters, or click one or other button to determine a character's direction in the labyrinth, or read a story as it's being written. These are clever experiments that I'm sure will bear fruit. I'm excited to see more like them in the future. But a story is only as good as its ability to plant a seed in the reader's mind. In the coming week, I'll be exploring this matter a bit more with posts about some books I'm reading -- one on the brain science of reading, and another one on video games.

Images are from the project website. I first caught wind of this project here on the website of Rahaf Harfoush, a communications and media strategist who wrote a fine book called "Yes We Did!" summarizing the new media lessons of the Obama campaign. Check out her site for other examples of effective web-based campaigns, and more.

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