The Writers Circle

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But is it a “book”? (And does it even matter?)

Every time I begin with a new class of young students, I sit them in a circle on the floor and ask them to imagine that they’re sitting around a campfire long ago. “In the ancient days, the storyteller was the keeper of all the tales – the people’s myths and legends, stories of their ancestors, heroes and history. The storyteller’s words had power. They were almost magical. And the storyteller was one of the most important people in the community.”

All of us are privileged to be storytellers, even still. But the “magic” that we use are words – written words on paper…on the screen…on the internet…on our iPads. Perhaps it no longer really matters what media we use, so long as our stories are written, read and preserved.

I came across an article in The Atlantic about Moonbot Studios which has been developing some absolutely amazing storytelling apps for the iPad. One of Moonbot’s founders is children’s author William Joyce whose imagination entertained my children frequently in their earlier years.

Among Moonbot’s projects are the charmingly poignant “interactive narrative experiences” The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (on the web only as an animated short. You need an Ipad to get the real thing.) and The Numberlys. Both are, for me, the first proof that storytelling can indeed be enhanced by technology, at least in young children’s literature that already relies on a highly engaging visual element.

And yet I cannot agree more with the February 12 article in The New York Times, The Beauty of the Printed Book, which began: “Some things seem designed to do their jobs perfectly, and the old-fashioned book is one. What else could be quite as efficient at packaging so many thousands of words in a form, which is sufficiently sturdy to protect them, yet so small and light that it can be carried around to be read whenever its owner wishes? The pages, type, binding and jacket of a traditional printed book do all of the above, as well as giving its designer just enough scope to make the result look beautiful, witty or intriguing.”

My heart wrenches at the thought that the precious object called “the book” – in fact the only objects of any real value in my personal possession – will be no more.

One medium does not supersede another – at least not entirely. Most people no longer go to theater, opera or ballet often. Though all have become more rarefied, more specialized, people do indeed go. If picking up a book – one made of paper – becomes a rare privilege, has culture really lost? Or is it simply getting its stories in another way?

Creations like The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore and The Numberlys are more like movies or video games. But they do tell stories, create characters, and share rich thoughts and experiences. They may not be “books”, but does it really matter?

These digital forays won’t replace the tomes that fill my bookshelves double-deep or the experience of actually reading “Pride and Prejudice” or “War and Peace”. Those experiences are unique, composed in their original form because that was the form of their times and creators. And I have clearly expressed and demonstrated to my sons that reading the book is almost always better than watching the movie.

But this strange new amalgam of story, game and video is SOMETHING – something powerful, something memorable, something intriguing. They’re the beginning of a new kind of storytelling – the kind that knocked the storytellers off their pedestals while creating entire new realms of learning and creativity.

They are also the only things so far that have made me regret buying an Android tablet (and saving $300) instead of springing for an Ipad.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

3 comments on “But is it a “book”? (And does it even matter?)

  1. Donna Martin
    February 14, 2012

    Oh my gosh, Judith! I LOVE this post and I thought The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore was one of the most touching stories I have ever seen! I love everything about books, the touch, the smell, the anticipation of opening a new book and starting out on a grand adventure to who know where! But it is children’s books that hold a special place in my heart. I am a writer and a follower of children’s books. I pray that the future never leaves us without the real thing…BOOKS!

  2. Sheila
    February 24, 2012

    It is an exciting time in storytelling.

    • Judith
      February 24, 2012

      Indeed! I think the trouble for writers is seeing the format of “book” as the only objective. There are many ways to tell a story, and here is a whole new medium being born. Of course, I’m a word person, so I’m not sure where it’ll leave ME, but it is very exciting. I hope we can all embrace it and be embraced in return.

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