A Communicable Pathogen

August. 2016. Sitting opposite me on the train to London, an old woman pulls out a copy of Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces and begins to read. I wait for a while, a palpable itching in my palms. Then I speak. I reach out to her, indicate that I’m also an adherent of that obscure faith. That we share something. I ask her about Borges, and Bioy Casares. About Tlön, and fiction, and creation. About feminism before it had a name. About Angela Carter and Leonora Carrington, about Kirsty Logan. If it were a year later, we’d talk about Camilla Grudova too.

Books are a secret society with a handshake and a badge. They extend out of the immediate experience, and slip into our view of the world. We share books with friends, we recommend and extoll writers who move us, who make us think. The first thing I do (and if I know you IRL, then I’ve definitely done this, so take this as a confession) when entering someone’s home is to subtly scour the bookshelves. I want to know what you read, what books you’ve kept, whether they’re in hardback, or a tattered paperback that’s been seen too many satchels and too many rainstorms. I judge people based on what they’re reading right now. You have a copy of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent on your desk? You’re alright by me. You read comics? I’m looking at the publisher, and if it’s an independent press, then you just won points.

Books are a communicable pathogen.

(Another confession. I bought two books between the first draft and the second of the paragraphs above. I have a problem. I know.)

That’s partly what makes my heart sink when I see a Kindle. Not the technology (about which I’ve written elsewhere and with some occasional spiky turns of phrase), but the hiddenness of the damn thing. I see a Kindle on the tube, or a train, and a little bit of my social spirit dies. I want to know what someone is reading. I want to smile when I see a book by an author I like. I want to grin when it’s someone I know, or who deserves a wider audience. The Kindle denies me that. It buries the smile behind a plastic mask.

Which is one of the things that’s on my mind as we prepare to launch the first commission within this project. Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark by Then is available to the public on May 6th in Bristol. It’ll go to Norwich in late June, London in early July, and further afield after that. It’s (I’m not going to say very much about it, because you have to experience it, and like a good book, it reveals itself in its reading) a piece of work that will be different for everyone who experiences it, while remaining completely identical in its structure (just like a novel, in fact). It is full of hope, and reveals utter despair, and as of this week, feels incredibly timely. But I’m thinking about how we describe it, and how it is communicated. How it spreads into the world. On one hand, we can talk about it in theatrical terms. That each person experiences the work. That it is, in many ways, a performance of literature. But my other hand says that it’s not theatre, it’s something else. It is invisible, a transitory encounter with a story that plays out just for you. Between the pages of a book, a voice in your ear, and the city around you. And being invisible, it prompts a question:

How do we make Ambient Literature a communicable pathogen?

We have word of mouth, of course. The marketer’s friend. We can hope that each audience member finds something to like about it. Enough to share a link, a remark and a recommendation. But that doesn’t address what I find so wonderful about the book as an object. The indefinable quality that makes me want to talk to someone because they’re reading something I’ve read too. A need to share the experience of a text, to see it out in the wild and recognise something.

Ambient Literature aspires to be embedded in the fabric of the city, to fade into the background until it is noticed, until it is experienced and then it provides an insight into the way in which we see space, and place. How we relate to the world around us as storyable. As stories that we can tell each other.

an aside – my friend, John Clute, remarks that pure story is not a lesson, but the thing told1. He suggests that metaphor (when used to disguise and demean that which is honestly told) isn’t always a necessary feature of story. Take that at face value and the experience of being within a story is pure story. Metaphor provides no respite from story in Ambient Literature.

Where does that leave us though? Where is the train journey wherein I encounter (fictionally. Sorry — it didn’t happen exactly like that) a reader of the same obscure Argentine writer of whom I am enamoured? How do we recognise fellow adherents? Do we need to issue you all with a badge? Pinned surreptitiously inside a lapel and turned outward at the right moment? Poetically, we might wish for a clique of Ambient readers, all sporting the same, starry-eyed gaze when walking through a specific (or non-specific) locale.

Genuinely though, it’s a problem to be addressed by the project as a whole. A frequent criticism of digital literature is that it will only ever be a niche pursuit, that it can’t break into a mainstream. I don’t have a huge problem with that2, and am broadly happy that we work to establish an interesting niche. Niches, after all, are where the interesting stuff happens. They’re where we look for the new, the provocative, the wayfinders of form. A pathogen would be nice though.

  1. Clute, John. (2014) Stay Beccon Publications. p223 ↩︎
  2. I’ve seen the weekly UK sales for some of the most-admired breakout genre hits of the last few years, and while audience isn’t exactly the same as sales, I don’t feel outgunned. ↩︎


  1. Thanks for this. At the risk of being blindingly obvious, I would imagine that some form of geolocational identifier embedded in the e-book might be a way? I haven’t even begun to think out the implications of this of course…

    • hi Bob

      Following up – I’m not exactly sure what that solves? We can track users of Ambient Lit pieces (not that we’re going to – but it’s a technological possibility) during their experience, and for It Must Have Been Dark by Then we’ll know where they begin (geographically – it’s a curated piece each time it runs). Is that what you’re proposing?

      (and to be clear – we’re not making eBooks!)



  2. If the concern here is about visibility, (or at least the opportunity to know what someone else is reading to spark conversation or promotion ) then I think we just need to think a little into the future. The problem with ebooks described seems a very ‘now’ issue to me.
    We’ve already seen the application of geo technology to dating apps, ones that let you know who you’ve walked past. It would be very easy to imagine a similar sharing to a digital reading system, so you can see and share what you are currently reading. Jump a little bit further forward and we move into a world where AR is a commonplace, which would not only offer reading experiences that are really ’embedded in the fabric of the city’ but also would allow for visual (or other forms) of sharing the work with passers by.
    I can imagine all kind of things.. what about haptic response that changes the balance of your reading device the more people around are reading the same thing?

    The terminology to describe ‘It Must Have Been Dark by Then’ might be hard to shape, but its actual form involves a physical book, and even with the added audio layers it uses the same sharing methods you describe from all books, you can see that someone is reading it. The challenge here I think is not it’s invisibility, but instead isolation. The reader is also wearing headphones that cut them off from the world, and so also from the enquiries of ‘fellow adherents’.
    Audio as a true AR system is becoming possible ( https://www.wired.com/2016/04/doppler-here-review-superhuman-hearing/ ), combine this kind of thing with visual AR and we’ll be getting somewhere.

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