Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Bit From Thursday Next

I enjoy the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. The following is a passage from the 5th (maybe 6th?) book in the series: "First Among Sequels". This scene takes place within the bookworld, where all fiction actually occurs, and the leadership is considering radical changes. I find it to be an interesting exchange... and even more interesting if you replace the idea of "readership" with "membership" and "story" with "doctrine." Not a perfect analogy, but rather interesting.

"Item two," said Jobsworth. "Falling readership figures. Baxter?"

Baxter stood up and addressed the room, although, to be honest, the other delegates - with the possible exception of Beauty - generally went with Jobsworth on everything. The person Baxter really needed to address was me. As the holder of the only veto, I was the one he would have to swing.

"The falling readership figures have been a matter of some concern for a number of years now, and increased expenditure in the Well of Lost Plots to construct thrilling new books has failed to grasp the imagination of the reading public. As head of the Readership Increasement Committee, I have been formulating some radical ideas to rekindle interest in novels."

He turned over a paper and coughed before continuing.

"After a fact-finding mission conducted in the real world, I have decided that 'interactivity' is the keyword of the new generation. For many readers books are too much of a one-sided conduit of information, and a new form of novel that allows its readers to choose where the story goes is the way forward."

"Isn't that the point of books?" asked Black Beauty, stamping his hoof angrily on the table and upsetting an inkwell. "The pleasure lies in the unfolding of the plots. Even if we know what must happen, how one arrives there is still entertaining."

"I couldn't agree with you more," remarked Baxter, "but our core readership is aging, and the world's youth is growing up without being in the habit of reading books."

"So what's your suggestion?" asked Jobsworth.

"To create a new form of book - an interactive book that begins blank except for ten or so basic characters. Then, as it is written, chapter by chapter, the readers are polled on whom they want to keep and whom they want to exclude. As soon as we know, we write the new section, and at the end of the new chapter we poll the readers again. I call it a 'reality book show' - life as it really is, with all the human interactions that make it so rich."

"And the boring bits as well?" I asked, recalling my only experience with reality TV.

"I don't suggest that every book should be this way," added Baxter hurriedly, "but we want to make books hip and appealing to the youth market. Society is moving on, and if we don't move with it, books - and we - will vanish."

As if to reinforce his argument, he waved a hand at the Read-O-Meter, which dropped another seventeen books by way of confirmation.

"Why don't we just write better books?" I asked.

"Because its expensive, it's time consuming, and there's no guarantee it will work," said Senator Aimsworth, speaking for the first time. "From what I've seen of the real world, interactivity is a sure-fire hit. Baxter is right. The future is reality book shows based on democratic decision making shared by the creators and the readers. Give the people what they want in just the way they want it."

"Once the ball starts rolling downhill, it can't be stopped," I remarked. "This is the wrong route - I can feel it."

"Your loyalty is misplaced, Ms. Next. What could be wrong with offering readers choice? I say we vote on it. All those in favor of directing funds and resources to an interactive reality-book project?"

They all raised their hands - except me and Senator Beauty. Me because I didn't agree with them and Beauty because he had a hoof. It didn't matter. He was against it.

"As usual," growled Aimsworth, "the contrarian amongst us knows better. Your objections, Ms. Next?"

I took a deep breath. "The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that we're not in the book industry. This isn't a publishing meeting with sales targets, goals, market research and focus groups. The book may be the delivery medium, but what we're actually peddling here is story. Humans like stories. Humans need stories. Stories are good. Stories work. Story clarifies and captures the essence of the human spirit. Story, in all its forms - of life, of love, of knowledge - has traced the upward surge of mankind. And story, you mark my words, will be with the last human to draw breath, and we should be there, too, supporting that one last person. I say we place our faith in good stories well told and leave the interactivity as the transient Outlander fad that it is. Instead of being subservient to reader opinion, we should be leading it."

No, I draw no ties between this fictitious discussion about fiction and very real discussions about doctrine, worship, and practice. Oh, wait -- yes, yes I totally do.

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