Saturday, April 7, 2012

Contains Almost No Robots or Explosions: The Internet is a Playground by David Thorne

When I was little, I often wished for a book with an infinite number of pages. It would simply carry on the story as I read it, it would never get boring, and it would provide my life with magic and amusement wherever I went. Of course at that age I didn’t realize that never-ending stories would be problematic, or that the web was about to be invented. These days people carry hundreds of volumes in their pockets, and hold in their phones a vast network of reading material that expands by the day. Whether the new forms of interactivity this lends to the once-humble book is for good or ill is a matter of debate, yet digital pages simply have more options than their static print counterparts.

Which is what makes The Internet is a Playground (Tarcher/Penguin, 2011) a rather ironic title to find in print. The volume amasses the emails, articles, and other written musings of David Thorne, an Australian satirist and design director. His blog, 27b/6, hosts most of these online exchanges, many of which have gone viral. The more notorious of these involve lost cats, pie charts, and Thorne’s attempt to repay monetary debt with a drawing of a spider.

The book doesn’t try anything fancy in moving from computer desktop to bookshelf. It’s formatted much like the original blog, as a collection of plainly-paginated emails hot off the office printer. There’s a reason these have proven a hit online, and the book – both in paperback and ebook versions – seems keen to let the text and self-contained illustrations succeed, or flop, without any graphical propping-up.

From a reader’s (and tightly-budgeted publisher’s) perspective, this deadpan approach appears in some ways successful. Thorne’s art consists of simple, to-the-point compositions that lend themselves well to the supposedly blink-length attention span of the online meme collector. Some of the book's illustrations are Thorne’s work, but others are simply photocopies of documents, permission slips or complaint notices he has received. These images serve as the visual punchlines to his circuitously written emails, which tend to wind off into seemingly unrelated landscapes of absurd digression before casually waltzing back to remind the email’s recipient that they’re being insulted. Thorne goes through such great pains to string his targets along that it’s a wonder they don’t realize the game – although, like with many satirical pranksters, the only victims who make it onto Thorne’s show are the ones that take the bait. While meandering, his writing is rarely verbose – and he is often cutting and frequently crass, eager to evoke an angry response from the easily offended masses. Don’t let the smiling spider fool you: pretty pictures don’t make this a book for the kids.

Blogger David Thorne
So alright, Thorne’s blog is a bit of harmless smartassery on the internet. But is there really that much profit to be had by binding emails in printed form? Publisher Penguin seems to think so, selling the book not only through online vendors, but through major retail chains: real live physical ones! They aren’t alone, either: plenty of other major online humour collections, from Neil Pasricha‘s Book of Awesome to Simon’s Cat, are getting in on the action. Some, such as comics like The Oatmeal actually look appealing in glossy paper form. Although they often reference online culture, comics on the printed page come across more visually striking than emails or snappy textbites. While The Internet is a Playground does contain graphical elements, they’re obviously of a different kind, and show up mostly in black and white on average quality paper.

And, at the same time, there much of the book sits, on his blog, in its snarky, full colour glory.

For free.

While I’ll admit to many laughs from Thorne’s work, I wasn’t certain how many people would actually feel compelled to buy the hard copy – yet it debuted on The New York Times Best Sellers list the week of its release. The Internet is a Playground does have some original, just-in-the-book-version content, but could contain more to make it worth the print price. The ebook version, too, seems a tad steep for something you can get free – often on the very same portable device. Thorne’s got a second volume on the way, though, so clearly I’m not the only one to splurge on a tangible edition. With other, more established authors releasing full books for free online, the print and digital publishing worlds seem capable of complimenting and spurring business among one another. I cannot say whether this is a sign that, like with music and films, there is still a desire to purchase, to pay for and own copies of creative works – but I would like to take it as hope for the future of the printed book, another topic of great speculation. Perhaps my dream of a book that never ends isn’t as far off the mark as I thought. I may simply have to buy it in multiple volumes.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. I admire the passion they exert in their work. I hope they keep that level of creativity and reach out far more to just Canada. Cheers from Edinburgh, UK guys!