A History of the Future of the Book


Remember hypertext fiction? Me neither, but with the increasing importance and attention paid to digital texts now, there’s something quite instructive about looking at what everyone was thinking about ten years ago (also something we revisited earlier: “The End of Books, c. 1992“).

This topic was of particular interest for —

“readers and writers in the burgeoning field of electronic literature, which promised to liberate narrative from the prison of print and replace the limitations of traditional, consecutive sentence-blocks with a model more befitting the Information Age: hypertext fiction (or hyperfiction). This new genre’s networks of links — the so-called ‘lexias’ first postulated by Roland Barthes in his seminal “S/Z” — along with its extra-linear narrative and claims of infinite possibility for the enterprising reader were, ever so briefly, the end of the world as we knew it.”

So whatever happened to hypertext novels as the Next Big Thing? Why did it never quite make that leap from liminal, experimental creation to more mainstream forms of writing? It’s tough being in the business of forecasting the future, but who in 1992 would have expected to see the kinds of changes to books we’re seeing right now?

“One reason that the theoretical work on hypertext so quickly overpowered the work it was nominally glossing might be that so many of the canonical hypertexts come off as anticipating, if not obsessed by, their own novelty. There’s generally no fourth wall to break, and, for today’s reader, fluent in Wikipedia’s associative rabbit holes, the original material has all the replay value of Pong. Plagued by public indifference and a sea of dead links, hypertext novels never vanished per se; but their reputation wound up consigned to a custodial community of specialists. Looking back at what was supposed to be the future, the pervading aroma is of retro-futurism, not unlike the rides at Disney’s Tomorrowland … “


With that hypertext fiction history in mind, it’s hard not to be more than a little curious about Luminous Airplanes, a sort of Hypertext Fiction 2.0.

“So there is something simultaneously precocious and curiously regressive about the fact that Paul La Farge’s new novel “Luminous Airplanes,” has been issued as both a traditional hardcover novel and as an online “immersive text” — with hyperlinked words, nested stories and diversions that not only act as a corollary to the published material (all of which will eventually be available online), but bend it beyond the capacities of straightforward narrative.”

For what it’s worth, the online counterpart for Luminous Airplanes is not too shabby. For those that do enjoy the interchangeable reading experience from print to screen, this is well worth checking out —

Logging on to luminousairplanes.com (which adds the subtitle “a hyperromance”) for the first time, there’s every reason to mistake it for an ironic, if amiable, throwback to the days when hypertext seemed an inevitable rebuff to print. Instead, “Luminous Airplanes” is the most successful instance of the form to date, with an eminently comprehensive design that learns all the right lessons from the Internet’s long adolescence — an interface reminiscent of the Kindle but with a better font, user-friendly bookmarks, inset photographs and illustrations, blog-like updates — and jettisons anything hostile to the pleasure of a good novel. And whether or not this is enough to coax a wide readership back to clicks and URLs, one thing’s for sure: Future lit/tech crossovers finally have a soaring prototype and solid argument for legitimacy as institution. And, unlike its printed and bound companion, the hypertext experience is free.”

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