Aspirations for the medium of the book

Chronicles of the Secretary-at-Large, Randall Packer, 2008

Way back in 2008 I created my first e-book. Actually, it wasn’t intended as an e-book: I marched down to my local printer and created a limited edition printed artist book: Chronicles of the Secretary-at-Large, a semi-fictional storyboard account of the creation of the US Department of Art & Technology, culminating in my epic journey through the Underworld of America (the premise for my performance work, A Season in Hell).

Fast forward five years, I find myself deep into new strategies for telling my epic and even not so epic stories: surveying the possibilities for moving beyond the printed word. Now mind you, I have nothing against books, I love them, I have written one: my collection of writings by artists and engineers tells yet another story, Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. But I can tell you from personal experience, working with a publisher is its own epic process of collaborating with peer reviewers, editors, marketing people, book designers, the list goes on. To publish a book, you have to satisfy this coterie of experts, and by the time you are finished, you are really lucky if your book still resembles your original vision. Fortunately, my colleagues at W.W. Norton, along with my co-editor Ken Jordan, did a fabulous job, so I have no regrets.

But as a multimedia artist, I have to wonder if it makes any sense to think in print. Not that the e-book world isn’t already exploding around me. Clearly, the e-book train has left the station, so to speak, and everywhere you look there are a seemingly infinite number of publications of every possible variety emerging from countless publishers and self-publishers. The world is awash in e-books, video-books, blogs, pdfs, iBooks, e-zines, e-journals, hyper-fiction novels. And they are designed for the multiplicity of platforms out there: tablets, smart phones, laptops, desktops, and all the rest. E-publishing has become an abundance of riches. So where do you even begin to find your own place in the publishing milieu?

In terms of my place in all this, my roots are in musical composition, and as far back as I can remember, I have always thought of music theatre as my essential medium. (Yes, even my seminal experience with the Rocket to the Moon at Disneyland in the 1960s was a form of music theater.) In the course of my multimedia journey through time and space, I have traversed all the media I could possibly incorporate into my work: theater, VHS, laserdisc, CD-ROM, DVD, Net, database, and now live netcasting from my studio. In my mind it’s all theater and performance: engaging the media as a stage for endless variations on personal narrative excursions.

So returning to the book, I now ask myself, how can the e-book resemble a form of  theater? Or better yet, how can theater resemble a book? And why even still call it a book, or even theater? If not either,  then what?

I say, it’s time to kill the book, or at least revamp the idea of the book, to rethink all previous notions of the book, so it can more closely resemble the creative vision, wherever it may lead. The book as a container of all possibilities.