April 4th, 2006


Cooking the blooks

The BBC tells us that a cook named Julie Powell has won the Blooker Prize with a book that began as a blog, "365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen". Bob Young, founder of self-publishing site Lulu, which organised and sponsored the prize, is quoted as saying: "Blooks are the new books, a hybrid literary form at the cutting edge of both literature and technology". What is a blook? It's a blog that turns into a book, the way, in evolution, mammals went back into the sea and became fish again. Except they didn't really do that, although undoubtedly some of us still enjoy a good swim.

Julie's cookblook sounds like a slightly less interesting version of a book I saw someone reading on the subway recently, Everything I ate: a year in the life of my mouth by Tucker Shaw. Tucker took Polaroids of his food every day for a year, in a project which could have started as a blog, but could equally have been an On Kawara art project or even something more extreme, like Tehching Hsieh's One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Piece).

The almost autistic obsessiveness of such blog-like, art-like recording projects (Cornelius's food blog also springs to mind) isn't really very book-like, but as someone who loves neologisms I'm going to humor this idea that blooks are the new books, and that blogs are the future -- no, wait, the past! -- of the book. It chimes with a very interesting luncheon visit I made a couple of weeks ago to the Institute for the Future of the Book in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Someone called Dan Visel had invited me to come in and chat. I found myself in a kitchen overlooking the sandy back courtyard of a plain clapperboard building on North 7th Street. There were about six men sitting around a kidney-shaped table. One of them was older than the others and looked like a delicate Vulcan. "I expect you're wondering why you're here?" he said. "Yes, I've been very trusting," I replied, wondering if I was about to be held hostage by a resistance movement of some kind.

Well, it turned out that the Vulcan was none other than Bob Stein, who founded the amazing Voyager multi-media company, the reference for intelligent CD-ROM publishing in the 90s. One of my friends from that heady time, Eric Swenson, actually had one of his Blam CD-ROMs issued by Voyager.

So, for the next 90 minutes or so, I heard all about the Institute for the Future of the Book (or if:book, as they like to call themselves) and its projects. It seems they're assuming that the book itself is already over, and that it will survive now as a metaphor for intelligent conversation in networks. Bob's great delight with Voyager was to discover that books could jump to life with voices and films and interactivity. He doesn't look back with much nostalgia at the paper-card-glue book. In fact, he's looking so far forward that he seemed rather disappointed with the recent Wired piece in which I said that the artforms (theatre, dance, live rock, performance art) which can't be digitized and put up on a network are getting more important precisely because of their resistance to digital commodification. For Bob, Vulcan eyes fixed on some far horizon, thinks that everything will enter the digital domain sooner or later. (if:book's forthcoming Sophie software is oriented towards helping that happen.)

I'm more inclined to think the flow between bits and atoms is two-way. Sure, I do consider myself, in some sense, a post-book writer. And yes, a blogger is just a writer with a cooler name. Click Opera is pretty much where I want my writing to be. Yet I have no objection to the idea that a book may one day come of it, a (necessarily limited) hard copy. This year I've contributed writing to a blook of sorts, a post-web book called Fotolog.book (the dot book bit is a perfectly blookish statement) made of photos and comments people posted to photo-sharing website Fotolog. It captures between hard covers some of the liveliness and spontaneity of internet life, but it weighs a ton, and of course you can't leave comments in the margins. Well, you can, but nobody will see them.

if:book's blog might also become a blook one day, although, given Stein's views on atoms, it would be somewhat ironic, and somewhat pointless. Personally, I already find it rather heavy; its concern with legal and technical issues leaves my eyes feeling slightly lead-lidded. It's all a bit grown-up, this talk of frameworks and standards, of DRM, RDF, SSN, URI, API and XML. But I can tell you, should you be preparing a food blook, that we ate falafel sandwiches prepared by a nearby take-away run by Palestinians. They were tasty, and not digital at all.