Ever get lost in a book? A new online database of crowd-sourced information called Placing Literature allows readers to explore the settings they are reading about through an interactive map.
To me, this sounds like a winning formula as I’ve always viewed reading as an interactive experience. As a child the best kind of stories had me looking up dictionaries, checking out atlases and consulting my beloved Encyclopedia Britannica. Digital technology affords writers and readers the chance to surround a story with expanded content which does some of this same work.
Online maps and other “paratexts” can contextualise the historical or physical setting of a novel or link it to other books set in the same place. The term paratext was initially introduced by literary theorist Gerard Genette to describe a range of associated discourses and objects that surround the novel – such as prefaces, interviews, blurbs and in a more contemporary context book trailers, fan fiction, Facebook pages and online rating sites.
These additions to a text can broaden our understanding of writing and reading, particularly in relation to the changing nature of participation for readers of fiction, an area that has traditionally not provided meaningful opportunities for interaction to occur outside the text.
Beyond the book
New digital tools provide writers with avenues to explore elements of their story that may sit outside the main narrative, but through which a deeper understanding of the story could be gained, without disrupting the flow of the writing. For some readers these digital media tools supplement the reading experience. They represent a way for them to connect with the novel more holistically and to position it within a body of literature they may not be aware of.
One of the major disruptions caused by digital technology is around the way we read books, in particular the devices on which we read and consequently the capacity of those devices to allow research and exploration to occur while reading. This type of activity can be seen as either an unnecessary distraction or an exciting development in the ever changing evolution of books.
Whatever your point of view this is just the beginning, and augmented books or sites that bring together information about books that can be searched or user-led sites that promote discussion and evaluation of books outside the mainstream literary media are only going to continue to grow both in numbers and in capabilities.
Find your favourite novel
And so, let’s return to Placing Literature.
In 2013 Andrew Bardin Williams teamed up with a geographer and a software developer to create a platform where readers can map the locations of their favourite novels. The site allows you to search specific locations or browse a map to discover other novels that have been set in the same place. The information that comes up includes the names of characters and excerpts from the story, and as with most crowd-sourced information the detail varies from post to post.
Brisbane in literature
I started to consider what I would upload about my home town of Brisbane, and I was struck by how quickly the novels that had described the places I knew so well came to me: Andrew McGahn’s beautiful and raw rendering of inner-city pubs and boarding houses in the early 1990s as Brisbane underwent its own transformation along with the characters in Praise; or more recently in Kris Olsson’s Boy, Lost and its descriptions of Brisbane from the 1950s and 1960s and how she captures the essence of the city that still remains today.
Another kind of Brisbane also came to mind, the one that formed the backdrop for speculative fiction and fantasy novels such as Kim Wilkins’ and Trent Jamieson’s and the landmarks in those novels that are instantly recognisable and completely foreign.
Placing Literature brings the physical and fictional together, and for contributors the act of finding passages to upload and match with cities, suburbs, streets is very intimate. This level of engagement with the novel is one that surely all writers would welcome.
The sharing of these insights with other readers is an integral part of this platform, which like similar sites is about building communities of readers and diffusing the power around who is allowed to discuss literature and in what medium.
Books that take you places
Another example of the use of location based paratexts is Kate Pullinger’s latest novel Landing Gear – which also has an interactive map (along with a digital prologue and epilogue that sit outside the novel itself) that pins extracts from the novel to the exact locations.
In this instance the map was created by the publisher – Doubleday Canada – after they allowed access to the first 30 pages of the novel through their content API (application programming interface) at a hack day in San Francisco last year, and from this the interactive map was created. “[The API] makes the text searchable and re-mixable, which opens it up to other developers coming in with ideas about new ways of interrogating the text other than simply reading it,” explains Pullinger.
Landing Gear explores themes of displacement and belonging and the characters all, in their own ways, travel around the world looking for their place in it. This coming together of form and content is a clever and organic use of the possibilities inherent in digital technology for books.
Whether created by faithful readers or innovative writers these types of tools have a great deal to contribute to our experiences of particular stories and their ability to blend the real and the fictional.