When digital helps literature

For years now there have been fears that the screen will kill the book. But it turns out that digital support enables words to thrive.

by Mark Tungate , Adforum

Perhaps it simply touched the hearts of journalists everywhere, but the New York Public Library’s magical Instagram innovation – Insta Novels – recently generated a raft of articles. The project, in collaboration with Mother in New York, uses Instagram’s Stories function to bring new life to classic novels. Readers can skip through sumptuous visuals as they revel in words by authors such as Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka.

The partnership feels natural for Instagram, which is already host to a whole community of “bookstagrammers”, who pay homage to their favourite reads through sumptuous still-life photographs.

In fact, rather than being at odds, the digital and literary worlds have been buddying up for a while. As well as offering a different way of reading through its famous Kindle devices, Amazon also allows writers to self-publish their work, from short stories to full novels. This has created a thriving “indie” publishing ecosystem.

Meanwhile, authors have published entire books on Twitter – and the platform is a great way of following and communicating with your favourite writers.

A somewhat quirkier development comes from Grenoble, France, in the form of vending machines that dispense short stories. Launched in 2015, Short Edition now has machines across France and beyond – and the backing of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who installed one in his own San Francisco café.

One specific challenge is encouraging screen-obsessed kids to discover books. The more successful campaigns embrace digital rather than fighting against it – as in Penguin Books’ use of Facebook Messenger to deliver great writing.

Even the brainiest kids struggle to engage with Shakespeare, a guy who put pen to paper over 400 years ago. Having said that, his plays covered love, murder, betrayal, madness and the supernatural – all things likely to appeal to a Young Adult reader. Samsung and Cheil Worldwide weighed in on the problem for the Royal Shakespeare Company with a game in tablet form. Students could discover the plays, rehearse parts and even perform opposite a real actor.

But what about getting grownups excited about books again? In Saudi Arabia, the Jarir bookstore and J. Walter Thompson did it by creating “fake news” headlines based on the plots of classic works of literature.

For those who already love books, there have been a number of initiatives along the lines of Book Crossing – the idea of “setting a book free” in a public place and allowing someone else to enjoy it. On the website Bookcrossing.com, you can print labels that you paste into your book. They contain a code that recipients can then enter on the site, enabling you to track your book as it travels from reader to reader.

The actress Emma Watson – forever known as Hermione from the Harry Potter films – launched a version of this with her Book Fairies initiative, in which she leaves feminist books dotted around town. She started the project in association with the London Underground.

But the project has since moved to New York and beyond.

Talking of international travel, you may be the kind of person (like myself) who loves to read books set in whatever location you’re visiting. This can take a little research, but a site called TheBooktrail.com makes it much easier. Simply type in your destination and a list of choices appears. You can also submit books you’ve enjoyed on your travels to create your own trail.

Finally, when you’ve got your book in whatever format works for you, all you need is a quiet place to enjoy it. Which isn’t necessarily easy, as this spot from AMV BBDO London demonstrates.