Earlier this month, we travelled to Bristol in order to try out a new kind of reading experience – a project that intends to fully integrate the physical with the digital. Pioneering the frontiers of storytelling and gathering media attention, These Pages Fall Like Ash is an AHRC- and REACT-funded project worth investigating…
As with every new digital development, there is a tendency to wax lyrical on its boundary-pushing, experience-enhancing, multi-layering and super-innovating qualities. And this project was no different. However, as I mentioned previously, this time it seems as if they have hit upon something with real significance – a diamond (albeit one slightly in the rough) amongst the lacklustre onslaught of uncreative ebooks. It is a part-treasure-hunt, part-interactive, location-based, cross-platform serialised story. I make no apologies for the use of hyphens: it seems entirely appropriate for this kind of mash-up media (there I go again).
It’s one thing to glorify the idea, but it becomes a new matter altogether when trying it out for real in the cold light of day … literally. I took a Neil Gaiman fan along with me to see what it was all about. We wandered down to Watershed at Bristol harbourside to pick up our handcrafted book and start the journey.
At first glance, the content was bewildering. Beneath the wooden covers were two notebook-style sections; one filled with snippets of story and one with a variety of guidance, history and information. There are spaces within the pages for you to interact with (draw upon, make notes, etc.) and a glossary to help you understand the speech of the fantasy city inhabitants, i.e. ‘handing: v. the exchange of an object that has an emotional resonance (one that cannot easily be passed on …)’. I have to admit that we spent a good forty minutes reading it almost cover to cover before we felt we knew how to begin; perhaps due to the unfamiliarity of the format, or perhaps a pitfall of not being a native Bristolian.
We ventured out (with the aid of Google maps) and tracked down our first location. There was definitely a sense of novelty as we managed to access the wireless connection point via our smartphone – it felt like you were being let in on a secret and we got some curious looks from passersby. Once we opened up the online content, we could read more extracts and relate to our surroundings. It was still quite difficult to grasp, but this is probably inevitable when the whole concept is based around the blurred boundaries between the fictional and real version of a city.
Anticipation increased as some of the text began to disappear whilst we read, presumably one of the ways in which the creator, Tom Abba, wanted text onscreen not to behave like text on a page. Further along the trail, we began to piece together bits of the content and gradually a sense of coherence began to emerge – thank goodness, because prior to this point I had felt like I was on some kind of unfathomable Thomas Pynchon quest. Parts of the printed book turn out to explain gaps in the digital text, and it’s up to the reader to make those connections between physical and digital. In the end, the audience becomes the mediator of that storyline, adding to it, and ultimately leading to its conclusion.
Those expecting an explosion of all-singing, all-dancing, multimedia interactive content, think again. These Pages Fall Like Ash is more a work of subtlety and imagination, probing the reader to become part of its somewhat obscure and veiled content. Then again, it’s that sense ephemerality that makes this project stand out from other flash-and-grab digital media. It demands involvement, creative thought and absorption rather than dishing out instant gratification.
Although I only had a taster of These Pages Fall Like Ash, I do think that you could be led into its world with a touch more clarity; after all, this is new territory for everyone. But what is important is that the way is being paved for this kind of storytelling experimentation, with professional writers (like Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway) crafting the words and a real dedication to capturing the imagination of readers. If they can sustain the level of engagement with the imaginary power of the reader and the strength of a story then it’ll be a winner – the trick lies in holding that balance just right. Ultimately, the project should be recognised as having the kernel of something great, something that should be encouraged, expanded and built upon in future.
Thwarted by rain, we finished our storytelling adventure in the pub… I guess that is the bonus of reading in the great outdoors.