Digital lit: How technology is changing what we read

Today's literature isn't only available on paper and Web pages -- tech enthusiasts are coming up with new ways to read

Aya Karpinska had a story to tell. She could hear the words and envision how the tale would unfold. All she needed, she says, was the right iPhone app.

So Karpinska hired a programmer, paying him $500 to deliver in five days an application that would disseminate her piece, called "Shadows Never Sleep," through an iPhone application.

The application allows Karpinska to tell a visual story, with white text on a black background that makes the actual appearance of the words -- whether blurred, twisted, or different sizes and fonts -- integral to the plot itself, as you zoom in on it to follow the story through. The author calls it a "zoom narrative."

Karpinska is not alone in her endeavor to adapt literature to today's technology. Writers and publishers of all kinds are turning to technology to bring literature to the masses.

Much of the work to date has focused on transferring existing print books to an online format. Project Gutenberg is one of the most prominent examples of that. Founded in 1971 by Michael Hart, it has turned tens of thousands of print volumes into e-books, making it the first and largest single collection of free electronic books. Similarly, e-book readers such as are designed to replicate the traditional experience of reading a book, using technology to bring convenience to the endeavor.

But the work on this front involves more than just converting traditional printed texts into electronic versions. Writers and publishers are also using technology to deliver literature in new and innovative ways using, for example, RSS feeds and text messaging. And they're employing programming and mobile devices to develop new literary art forms, too, forcing us to reconsider how we collectively define the term "literature."

Is tech redefining literature?

"I think we're going to have to change our definition of what writing is, because [electronic] media is expanding the definition of what reading and writing can be," Karpinska says. "It opened the door for different kinds of writing."

Literature and tech
Aya Karpinska's "zoom narrative" for the iPhone.

The variety of work available through cyberspace ranges from visual works such as Karpinska's "Shadows Never Sleep" to "twiction," ultrashort pieces written specifically for Twitter. You can even find classics delivered in digestible doses via e-mail or RSS feeds.

Susan Danziger is founder and CEO of DailyLit LLC, whose site delivers serialized stories via e-mail and RSS feeds. She and her husband, Albert Wenger, thought up the business a few years ago after seeing that The New York Times had serialized Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Danziger remembers thinking, as she carried her paper daily onto the train for her commute into New York, that the only item she carries around more often than the newspaper was her smartphone. So she and Wenger decided to build an application that would deliver classic novels electronically.

"We really started it for ourselves," Danziger says, noting that she had always wanted to read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and her husband wanted to read War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Danziger, who was working as a literary agent, and Wenger, who has a Ph.D. in information technology, mocked up an application to serialize stories. They tried different lengths before finding that a 1,000-word installment was just about right. And then -- like all good techies -- they showed their program to friends, who asked to use it for themselves.

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