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The Networked Book: if:book Advances

Ok, tomorrow is the annual holiday open house, which means I am having my annual nervous breakdown. I have to bake two more pans of cookies, rustle up a ham (or as I disrespectfully refer to it, the Ham of God), clean the house (which means, in part, scooping piles of stuff into my office closet), and buy the ingredients for our family heirloom hot mulled cranberry-pineapple punch recipe I found on the Web the day before last year’s party.

But I have lost a precious hour lured away by an exciting experiment in networked text from The Institute for the Future of the Book: Holy of Holies, a “collection of some of the more controversial ideas from the early chapters of my book on the history of disbelief” by Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at NYU.

The design of this paper explores possibilities with the book-as-conversation by using hacked-up WordPress. Readers can comment paragraph by paragraph, which isn’t something you realize you missed until you try it. The use of WordPress is exciting in its own right as a theoretically low threshold for enabling publishing in this form. You may know I’m tepid on open source for a number of reasons–at least, I’m not cultic about it–but an application such as a networked book has the potential to scale large enough to reach the critical mass that I believe is crucial to successful open source.

You can read more about Holy of Holies here, but I suggest you take a look at the paper and engage with it directly. It’s an engaging text by a heady thinker, and unlike if:book’s previous effort with Gamer Theory, this is a text I can relate to.

I know, I know, gaming is important, and we need to understand it–which is why it’s so good Jenny Levine has a new LTR out on the subject, and you must run out and get that because it’s Jenny and it’s gaming and that just sounds right. But gaming just isn’t my bag. Whether or not religion is your bag, Stephens is such a good writer–maybe I mean in-your-face, cocksure, and sometimes aggravating, which is often equal to “good” in my book–it’s very possible you will find something to comment on; or you can comment on other comments, or you can add thoughts about the technical aspects of this paper.

Every time I see if:book roll out a project like this, I want to use the form myself to write something–or maybe take an existing essay, such as one from the collection I produced for my MFA, and reimagine it in this space. In theory, if:book is working hard on Sophie, a software program for networked text. I’m wondering if Sophie will be overcome by other tools developed in parallel–and I don’t say that as if it’s a bad thing.

As a writer, I also like the idea of commenting on my own work, in concert with readers. Perhaps in the future we will have no revisions–“the rest is commentary.”

I can see so many uses for this–this–whatever it is. Imagine if a favorite cookbook, such as the Joy of Cooking, were presented in this form–well, I just don’t know, I’d have to pass out with excitement. Sorry, Bob et al., if that sounds like an undignified use for this tool, but as someone who has spent all free time in the last week toggling between Epicurious, cooking websites, and traditional cookbooks, I mist up over the idea of a fiercely-commented cookbook.

Bob, Ben, et al.–what are you calling this? (Whining slightly:) when can the rest of us use it?

Now, back to the crisis. Come, thou long-expected Ham!

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