Google “published” two experimental books last week as part of its "Editions at Play" project, aimed at producing “unprintable books.” They are designed to be read on your smartphone or tablet, leveraging its connectivity and flexibility.
It's a fascinating idea, attempting to re-imagine the concept of the book and the immersive reader experience, using mobile technology to add rather that distract from the story. Google wants to broaden the e-reader experience, which right now is largely a paper-to-screen 1-for-1 swap, to include something between a Choose Your Own Adventure and a static piece of art.
Or as Google puts it: "We wanted to see if we could keep the integrity of reading, but play with the book’s digital form."
So does it work?
Yes and no.
First, calling these “books which cannot be printed" does the format a bit of a disservice, but it's probably an essential one. These aren't books in any traditional sense, but it's the closest format to hitch a wagon to, for marketing purposes. The two selections Google has made available now are more similar to short stories that merged with a riddle and a poem.
Entrances & Exits, by Reif Larsen, is a lyrical, beautiful piece of magical realism that asks the reader to navigate chapters by searching Google Earth scenes for passages. The scenes and objects make up the setting of the story, and when it works well the words and images combine in a lonely, dreamlike world. But at other points, the street scenes and clicking feel perfunctory, and that will likely be the main challenge to creating successful works: Making the technology flow, rather than breaking up the story.
Google's description: "... a Borgesian love story told through Google Street View, in which the narrator discovers a mysterious key in an abandoned bookshop and gradually learns of its power to open and close doors around the world. The story is a beautiful dance between fictional narrative real locations that seamlessly spans the globe.
Everything E&E got right, The Truth About Cats and Dogs didn't. It's a story told in competing journals and poems, and uses the navigable nature of the platform in a way that doesn't add much. You can read the pages in any order, beginning with either character, but that seems to be the whole deal. I didn't connect with the story, enjoyed some of the poetry, but thought the “watch it get typed” gimmick was done a while back.
Google says: Welcome to The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a failed collaboration between novelist Joe Dunthorne and poet Sam Riviere. Switch between their diaries, their poems, their private resentments and public enthusiasms. Though there is no right way to read the story, someone must have the last word.
E&E is beautifully written, often reminiscent of Haruki Murakami's work, and succeeds on the merit of its words alone. And about half the time, the story interface is a net positive. For TTAC&D, it seems like this piece was put together at the last minute, using last-year's technology.
Not every book is compatible with every device, which feels wrong in terms of a “book” and more familiar in the app world. Not being able to read a piece of literature because of your smartphone choice is strange.
Because some books may require an internet connection, if your connection drops then parts of the book may not work. This happened a few times in E&E, with Google Earth images.
E&E actually came with a data warning, suggesting you only download it over WiFi rather than cell networks.
The books ask for permissions, so your reading list will come with data vulnerabilities in the future.
The price is too high. Normally priced at $4.25 (on sale now), E&E claims to take about an hour to read and TTAC&D about 30 minutes. Not a great deal, but I suspect pricing is still being worked out.
I balk at calling these “books.” They are heavy on the wordage, but I still think they're closer to an app that tells a story. That may be a meaningless distinction, and perhaps down the line the mediums will more fully merge.
A more unified platform might help (you read in-browser right now), as it would allow a more seamless integration of story and tech.
Ultimately, it's a fascinating idea and I will definitely be on the lookout for additional titles – Google says two more are coming out this Spring. But whether they succeed will depend on execution and story. Readers will put up with glitches for an evocative story, but less-so if they don't connect.
If Google's Play Editions can put out more work like Entrances & Exits, then it will be a success.