The year is 2014, and people have begun to notice something strange about certain children. Born after 2011, these kids are completely silent and unable to use or comprehend language. Parents and teachers find the situation baffling, and after further study, scientists and doctors label the condition "emergent phasic resistance." The story spans 2011 to 2043, and the scenario sets the premise for The Silent History, a serialized digital storytelling project, designed specifically for the iPhone and iPad, that has the potential to redefine storytelling as we know it.
Eli Horowitz, a former managing editor at McSweeney's, is part of the team behind The Silent History, which calls itself, ambitiously and correctly, a "new kind of novel." The book takes advantage of new technologies, all without tossing out a good, old-fashioned love for the well-written story. The team also includes Russell Quinn, co-founder of digital agency Spoiled Mark and the software developer behind the McSweeney's iPhone app and website. It was written in collaboration with two writers: Kevin Moffett, the author of Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, and Matthew Derby, author of Super Flat Times. Horowitz came up with the premise and the storyline arc, but worked in collaboration with Moffett and Derby to fill out the plot and characters.
The project arrives at a time when the rise of e-books shows no sign of stopping. In 2011, 43 percent of Americans read an e-book, or other long-form digital content on a device. Ownership of e-book readers grew from 10 percent in December 2011 to 19 percent in January 2012. Usually, though, e-books are lighter but lesser forms of an already existing book, says Horowitz, in an interview near his home in Forestville.
"E-books are selling themselves short and not thinking about the possibilities," he says. "It's not like I was mad about not being able to smell the paper or something, it just felt uninspired."
Ten years of designing and editing books at McSweeney's gave Horowitz plenty of insight into the book business. Rather than complaining about the lackluster transition that often happens when a paper book jumps to the Kindle, he decided to build upon the possibilities of the digital form. Thus was born Ying Horowitz & Quinn, a company specializing in the creation and implementation of new digital storytelling forms with the purpose of "bridging the gap between old and new media." The Silent History is one of the first projects out of the gate.
Upon downloading the free app from iTunes, readers have the option of purchasing the book on a volume basis ($1.99) or in its entirety ($8.99). Readers receive an installment on each weekday. Launched on Oct. 1, there are a total of six volumes, with breaks, so that the whole thing ends up stretching out over the year. The app can be downloaded anytime, and readers can use the break to catch up on the archive. Written over the past year, with Horowitz acting as "story-runner," or guide, The Silent History comprises two core components. The first is made up of testimonials (one is set in Monte Rio and features defunct dive bar the Pink Elephant) by teachers, parents, faith healers, doctors and other children who've come into contact with "the Silents." These form the backbone of the story, says Horowitz. The result is the equivalent of a 160,000-word (or 500-page) novel.
The second component is wholly collaborative and interactive, one that utilizes GPS navigation available on digital devices. These are called "Field Reports."
"The field reports are story extras that happen around the narrative," says Horowitz, adding that the story's premise had to have the richness and flexibility to allow for such additions.
To put it simply, these are geographically based reports, written by readers acting as "reporters," that add another layer to the story. Reports have come in from all over the world, including 19 in San Francisco, 30 in New York, 25 in Australia, five in Greece and one in Santa Rosa. Written by Dani Burlison, it takes place on the border between Roseland and Santa Rosa.
Scouting out the exact location and then watching as the red icon on the app turned to green—meaning that I could actually tap the story and open it up for reading—was a thrilling moment. It felt akin to uncovering a scavenger-hunt item. Of course, it's possible to only read the testimonials and still have a rewarding reading experience. The reports just add another element to be explored.
Horowitz wants readers to engage with the story in a way that might be limited in a traditional book. "The field reports use location in this deep way," he explains. "It's like a walking tour of the fictional world that uses artifacts of the physical world. It's written specifically for that place, and it's dependent on the reader being there." Readers have long loved to visit the important sites from beloved books—just look at the popularity of Ulysses tours in Dublin—but with this, readers have the opportunity to participate in the making of the narrative itself.
As you can imagine, it's extremely labor intensive to develop an app with so many different facets (and make it visually appealing, to boot). Russell Quinn developed the Silent History app while renovating and repairing the home he bought in Cazadero less than a year ago. He says the app's structure was built specifically for the story, with equal focus on content and form. He and Horowitz didn't want to replicate what publishing and media companies have done up until now, which is to take content and repackage it for digital devices in "unimaginative" ways.
"The publishing industry was not coming up with any good solutions in regards to e-books, and we were kind of disheartened by that," says Quinn. "I'm really proud and confident that this is one of the first examples of an e-book or a digital book that really holds true to the form. It's not just a technological gimmick where the content is not ultimately good."
Quinn's not exaggerating. After just two weeks, the testimonials become addictive. They hold the allure of a mystery novel, with the forward propulsion inherent in cliffhangers but written with an attention to detail and voice that you'd expect from writers like Moffett and Derby.
Unlike those who bemoan the "death" of the book, Horowitz firmly believes it's not about choosing between two sides of a chasm. It's about expanding our sense of what's possible when it comes to storytelling and books.
"The future of books isn't going to be about going to some random street corner and reading little things," says Horowitz. "It's just that the history of books and literature is a story of innovation and experimentation, both in content and form, and that should extend to these new devices. We want the revolution to be led by writers and readers, not online distributors.
"It needs some crazy people to try a bunch of things to see what works out," he adds.