Saturday, August 22, 2009

A latter-day incunabula

Here's a book fascinating as much for the means of its creation as for its contents. Nameless, by Sam Starbuck, is a book that was meant for hardcopy publication but was originally published digitally, on the internet. The author has coined a word for such a book--extribulum. A completed draft of the book was posted chapter by chapter online, and the author's 2,500 readers posted their comments, suggesting edits, providing the reader's perspective on how best to get the book's meaning across. All the sorts of things we might say in a book review, but before the book reached its final published form. In short, the readers had the chance to make Nameless a better book and Sam Starbuck a better writer, before it was too late to make changes to a printed and bound book. Nameless is now self-published and can be ordered in paperback or downloaded as a .pdf here.

It is exactly the kind of book I write and will probably always write, so I have a special fondness for it. An ordinary location--in this case, a small town in Illinois called Low Ferry, ordinary people, and extraordinary events. Masks are crucial to the story, both the plaster Carnival sort and the sort that everyone has and puts on for different occasions. There's a sort of dichotomy, too, between Low Ferry and Chicago, the different speeds and personalities of small town vs. big city. Christopher Dusk is the narrator, a bookseller in Low Ferry who is friends with the whole town and is a profound skeptic. The story really begins when Lucas moves to town, extremely shy and uncomfortable with the nosy, caring Low Ferry inhabitants, and in many other ways the equal and opposite reaction to Christopher's reaction (actually, it's often Christopher who must react to Lucas). These two characters lead the story, though there are many others around the town and in Chicago who we meet and can't help but be fond of.

This is not a calm story, certainly not compared to some books I've read, or even entirely a quiet one, but it is very self-contained. It doesn't stray from its set purview, doesn't venture into the wider world, doesn't try to say too much. What it does say is fascinating and profound. What magic is and what belief means are questions that sometimes in a busy life one doesn't stop to think about, but reading Nameless slows you down long enough to think about them, and for that reason I'm quite thankful to have read this book. Plus, it's rather wonderful to have been part of the fledgeing phenomenon of the extribulum--we've already taken reviewing into our own hands on the internet, I wouldn't be surprised if publishing becomes the next step.

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