Novelist and blogger Robin Sloan had something he wanted to say about three things he loves — writing, reading, and the Internet. He wanted people to really absorb it. Seems safe to say he wanted us to love it.
The usual path to such love is to write a great blog post, then track the tweets and re-tweets and favorites, the Facebook Likes and the Google-Plus shares, the Diggs and the Reddits and the OMGs, the Google Analytic page views … and if all those suckers light up bright, you get to feel the the internet love.
But because of what Sloan wanted to say, he did not want that sort of love. He didn’t want anyone to like or favorite or star or digg or OMG this thing he wanted to write. He wanted us to read it — to take it into our heads in a way that the web’s various distractions discourage.
Why? Because that’s what he was writing about. To quote the man:
He too often found himself distracted while reading online or in apps; the sideways allurements overwhelmed him. It was, he said,
He wanted to issue a “a short but heartfelt manifesto about the difference between liking something on the Internet and loving something on the Internet”: a call to create and appreciate things one might not just read and “like” and forget, but read many times over.
So he created Fish: A Tap Essay. Fish is indeed a short but heartfelt essay, but it’s also an app, and only an app, and only on the iPhone, and it’s about the simplest app you can imagine. It offers a single feature, which is that you tap the screen to go forward. That’s it. Yet with this simple app Sloan has kicked the crap out of almost every enhanced ebook or tablet app I’ve seen.
True, Sloan had the great advantage of simplicity: he needed to convey not the dynamics of evolution or the wonders of dinosaurs but a clean, straightforward argument: that the bells, whistles, options, features, links, and likes that now define much of our online and app reading experience can distract us from things we need to just tunnel into. So he ditched the bells and whistles and built a tunnel. And going down this thing provided one of the most satisfying short reading experiences I’ve had in some time.
Fish could hardly be simpler. As noted, you simply tap one screen to move to the next. Most screens contain, at most, one sentence. Often Sloan breaks a sentence over several screens. He does this skillfully, in rhythm with the language; never just for effect. Now and then, in lieu of a paragraph break, he lays down a blank card.
You can only read forward. This means reading Fish is like reading an essay written on index cards, except that when you finish a card you have to drop it down a well. Because you can’t go back, you read more carefully. The slowed reading and the clean prose creates a feeling of brevity and concision, much as produced by a poem. I was amazed when Sloan told me the essay was a thousand words — a medium length in print, longish for a poem or a blog post — for it felt shorter, denser, cleaner than that.
“Yes!” he said. “You almost need new metrics. We usually think of work counts or column inches. But this is about the time it demands and how many transitions between screens. It’s a a three-hundred-card essay.”
This slow-drip approach, along with commitment involved, created a pleasurable sense of immersion. It reminded me, paradoxically, of the frisson I felt the first time I played Myst, years ago. Myst was one of the first computer games in which you wandered around an open world and slowly made sense of it. You find yourself on an island and have to wander around and figure the place out. It’s rich. I can still remember the goose-bumps I got when I realized how it worked. With Fish, of course, I was not in open space but headed down a spare, artfully lit one-way tunnel. The novelty came not from options, but from commitment.
Sloan loves the web and lives there. “I feel like a native of the browser,” he told me. But he sometimes gets frustrated, he says, “at the surplus. Right now, as we talk, I have 26 tabs open in front of me, all these other apps — frames within frames within frames. You can’t get anyone’s attention in a focused way. Your writing can be beautiful, gorgeously laid out, but it’ll be surrounded by other things.
“How can we escape that?”
At first he wanted to write a blog post. But he’d been thinking he might do an app sometime, and realized this might be the time to try it.
“I had some false starts. I spent a couple weeks working up a story, with illustrations, but it wasn’t working. Then I realized: No, just the cards. I’ve been learning that often the answer is to simplify. Strip stuff away.”
There’s a vital lesson here for ebook designers. What Janet Malcolm said in her superb Paris Review interview about the writer’s problem applies to the ebook designer’s problem as well: Having collected and generated stacks of thoughts and ideas and material and strategies for telling a story one, the writer’s problem is not what to put in. The writer’s problem is what to leave out. And just because you have something does not mean you should use it. Content must be slave to design — design in a strategic sense, not just in how a thing looks. When it’s right — the way it’s right in this app, the way it’s right in Malcolm’s A Silent Woman, which is the book she was talking about — the work comes alive.
This doesn’t require minimalism. But it requires care, and care throughout. In the high-features ebook world, for instance, I feel this in Theodore Gray’s The Elements. Here virtually all features complement one another and drive the same line of exploration. It helps that the writing in The Elements is superb — an exception among feature-rich ebook apps. Too many others, even some that are gorgeously produced, produce the frustration I felt watching James Cameron’s Titanic: All that money, all that production value, no end spared to show us the machine room or the beauty of DiCaprio’s smile or Winslet’s eyes … and you couldn’t find a frickin’ writer?
The words matter. Not that everything needs to be text-driven. But the text should be good, and they and every other element need mesh into something that drives toward the same end. That’s the real beauty of Fish: Amid all the media and app tools out there, it recruits or invents only those that enhance rather than distract.
Sloan’s not suggesting we should do this all the time.
“The key is and,” says Sloan. “When people talk about these things, they default to or, and force you to choose sides. We have all these tools; we should use all of them. I would never trade in the whole open web for a full-screen single-threaded essay with no back button.”
Yet there are times, he insists, when we need to slow down: to look carefully and long at something, as a student in natural history might look long and hard at, say, a fish. Or, to repeat, as Sloan does:
For more on the fish, check out the app. It’s free, and it doesn’t take long.
But go slow.
Fish: A Tap Essay, by Robin Sloan. iPhones only. It’s free. Grab it here.
This review is cross-posted from Download the Universe, a new site for reviewing science e-books.