I'm often asked how I get ideas for my stories. The answer is: there's no single way; every story is different.
So let me tell you the story behind "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species," one of my favorite tales in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
, my debut collection.
Writers are naturally obsessed with books, the tangible artifacts of their labor. Even beyond the text, I love the physicality of books, the possibilities presented by their substance and form.
Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, a book made by cutting away words from another book until what is left tells a new story. (Image Credit: Visual Editions)
For someone so attached to the physical book, it might surprise you to know that I was one of the earliest adopters of ebooks. Back in the last century, I owned a trusty PalmPilot, and read many books on its tiny screen, scrolling with a stylus.
And later, when the Rocket eBook
came out in the late 1990s, I got one of those too. Many were the hours I spent struggling to download a book over my unreliable telephone line.
I was utterly fascinated by the transformation of books; I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next.
You see, the image of the book conjured up in our heads is the codex, a stack of pages stitched together. But the codex is but one stage in the grand evolution of books, and it has not always looked this way.
The same text, arranged in different physical media, gives rise to different ways of reading.
Consider, for instance, the shift from the scroll to the codex, a change that occurred both in the West and China. Compared to the scroll, a codex allows "random access" (you don't have to unroll the entire scroll just to get to one passage) and is more economical in its use of space (you can write/print on both sides of a page bound into a codex). The codex, as a technology, also permits new ways of locating and referencing material — just imagine how you would construct a dictionary, an index, or a table of contents for a scroll. It is likely that these technical advantages of the codex propelled its adoption over the scroll in different cultures.
For example, in China, the literati's passion for composing poetry during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) may have driven the wide adoption of "whirlwind binding" to produce rhyme dictionaries and other reference works. This is a transition format between the scroll and the codex, made from a stack of long rectangular pages bound together at one end and then rolled up like a scroll. (See Colin Chinnery, "Bookbinding," The International Dunhuang Project, 2007
A similar shift may be happening today as we go from reading on paper codices back to endless (electronic) scrolls in the form of Web pages. Hyperlinks and sophisticated search functions have allowed scrolls to catch up to and even surpass the advantages of codices in random access and ease of reference, and electronic texts offer many more advantages: user-controlled text formatting and flow, instant access to encyclopedias and dictionaries, ease of note-taking and quote-sharing, community-based discussions, and so on.
Yet, we persist in pretending that the scroll is not authoritative.
Lawyers, for example, are still forced to give jump citations to cases — almost all of them found via searches in electronic databases — by referencing page and volume numbers in bound books. (As a young law firm associate, I spent many hours checking to be sure that the clunky notations inserted into electronic cases from Westlaw and Lexis — ugly and interruptive of the flow of text — matched the page numbers in tomes found in the library. And even the Kindle, an electronic device that is able to flow and reflow the text to adapt to the font and sizing preferences of the individual reader, has had to include "real" page numbers in order to allow readers to be able to cite to specific passages, despite its far more precise "location" mechanism.
The point isn't to argue that reading on paper is superior to reading on the screen or vice versa, but to acknowledge that the form in which the text is presented allows new ways of reading. An electronic magazine that pretends to be a paper magazine — complete with page-turning animations — will never be more than an inferior imitation of the codex. But an electronic magazine that fully takes advantage of its non-codexness is able to give readers new ways to traverse the text: present each article as a long, vertical scroll with embedded multimedia; collate all articles found from multiple sources on a single subject into one place; permit the reader to jump from passage to passage, from article to article, by tapping on keywords; strip out all photographs and reflow the text into a three-word-narrow column to allow speedreading, etc. etc.
The human mind is an associative mind, and it is the book's ability to facilitate associations — between the author and the reader, between texts (by citations and links), between readers (by marginalia, pencil-underlines, and "popular highlights"), between different ideas — that gives it power. When Vannevar Bush dreamed of the memex, he was imagining the ultimate book, in which all readers were also writers and editors and curators, building trails of association that wove into a meta-textual web over the sum of human knowledge of which our World Wide Web is but a pale imitation.
Who knows what the book of the future will look like?
I wanted to tell a story about books in their multitudinous forms, about the cultures and communities of reading that grow around them, about the metaphors that come to life when we strive for the perfect book, strive to create that association between the individual soul and the community of knowledge.
And that was how I came to write "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species."
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) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
, and Strange Horizons
, among other places. He also translated the Hugo-winning novel The Three-Body Problem
by Liu Cixin, which is the first translated novel to win that award.
Ken's debut novel, The Grace of Kings
, the first in a silkpunk epic fantasy series, was published by Saga Press in April 2015. Saga is also publishing a collection of his short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
, in March 2016 (which includes "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species"). He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.