On Research: How did it ever get done before the Internet?

How the hell did writers ever do research in the days before the Internet? A lot of cultural and technological development took place to get us where we are today.

I’m not exactly a digital native – I remember the days before Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. I remember the days before the web, and email. I remember using a 2400 baud modem to log into local Bulletin Board Systems located on private desktop PCs all over town, just to stay abreast of local chatter.

Back in high school, I remember that we were taught how to use the card catalogue to look up books by their call numbers. It seemed to take a long time and a lot of searching to find one or two 20 year-old books, and then, more searching in each volume to find the information you were looking for in the first place. I just cannot imagine how much time and effort a writer would have to take in order to do research for a book, back in the days before the Internet.

The difference in time and effort spent on research today is like the difference between walking somewhere and teleporting there.

Finding Informed Opinions

When I need to make requests of various experts, but I don’t know to whom I should make my queries, I can just bleat a tweet out into the twitterverse, or send a few quick emails. Within 24 hours (maybe just an hour or three) I will have at least a couple of useful leads. Answers.com and other “Ask an Expert” sites are all over the web too. People will bid to answer your esoteric questions for relatively cheap rates. And, there are also a boatload of free message boards where amateur experts, aficionados and historians share information on a multitude of topics. No phone calls, letter writing or travel required.

Consult that Encyclopedia Britannica

When I’m looking for third-party researched data on general topics – like the kind of information I’d look for in an encyclopedia – I just go to Wikipedia, and if necessary, corroborate the information with other online sources.

Go There and Research Stuff in Person

Thanks to Google, Bing and others, I can get street-level and bird’s eye views of many places on the planet. This can go a long way towards informing any descriptions that I’d want to add to a story.

Of course, no street photography can give you the sounds, smells, temperature and tactile impressions that come from live human experience. By the time we manage to virtualize those sensations, we’ll be in the era of virtual travel, and reading textual descriptions will be largely irrelevant.

How Will Narrative Change?

At the point in our future where virtual environments become predominant, I think that narrative – the “story” – will be something that you as the reader/participant construct in your mind as you experience the writer’s virtual world. In that scenario, the writer will be a facilitator – a guide – and you will be the one creating your own narrative as you take your own steps through the story.

This is similar in evolution to how the hyperlink changed the idea of informational linking between books. Back in the pre-Internet days, a footnote in one book would refer to a passage in a different book, and to experience that second book, you’d have to go find it and read it. Hyperlinks transport your mind from the body of one book to the body of the next book with nothing more than a mouse click.

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Playing with Write or Die: “Fartley and George”

Getting started on a writing task is always a big challenge for me. Once I’m rolling, it seems that the opposite is true (when to stop?), but getting started is the most difficult part most of the time.

Enter a little site called “Write or Die”.

This site offers tools to put the flame under your rear. I used the free Desktop Edition, which provides a custom editor with a timer and various levels of prompts, ranging from gentle reminders to outright word assassination.

You set your own initial goal, say 150 words in 10 minutes, or 1000 words in an hour or whatever, and the rest is up to you.

With Kamikaze-level prodding from the free Desktop Edition, I burped out this little scene in a few minutes.

I didn’t say it was good – just fast. Enjoy.


That damned grass hadn’t been mowed in months. It was growing tall as hell, and it really pissed Eileen off. She’d been after George to cut the damned lawned for months and he never did. Why was everything always up to her?

George’s beloved and ancient laborador retreiver, Farley (or “Fartley”, as Eileen had dubbed him) was laying in the sun, like a great lump across the back sidewalk, blocking the gate. If there ever was a better advertisement for neutering, she hadn’t seen it.

Fartley rolled over, grunted and emitted a loud canine fart, and then sighed contentedly. She turned away from the window when she heard George do the same thing from his spot on the couch.

Boy, what a marvelous little family she had assembled around her, she reflected, pushing open the window.

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From Rockstars to Sleuths: Has 3D Game Storytelling Matured?

Have gaming and interactive storytelling finally matured to a new level? This is the impression I’m left with after reading reviews and watching clips from Rockstar/Team Bondi’s impressive new game, “L.A. Noire”.

Granted, I’m no gamer. Hell, I’m practically a neophyte. In the last year, I’ve probably spent more time playing Bejewelled and Angry Birds on my Palm Pre than I have playing any 3D first-person shooter on any platform in the past ten years. Remember Doom, Jedi Knight? I played those a fair bit, back in the nineties. I also spent hours exploring Second Life. That’s about as immersed as I ever got. Good times, but a bit meager compared to active gamers, but that’s pretty much my gamer cred.

Convergence of Pulp Fiction, Cinema and Gaming

Seeing a game that looks like a cross between an animated Raymond Chandler novel and the movie L.A. Confidential really piqued my curiosity. I think that the nature of the content – the hard-boiled detective genre and the quality of presentation – is what has drawn my attention to L.A. Noire. I love social realist authors like John Steinbeck and I’ve been reading classic hard-boiled detective fiction for years too.

From golden-age masters like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and cold-war veterans like Ian Fleming, John D. McDonald, and John LeCarre, through to modern crime writers like Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin – the crime fiction genre is still alive and well in the written word. TV has, of course, made it even more prevalent. Is there anyone in the western world who hasn’t watched an episode of “Law and Order” on TV by now? I doubt it.

I’m probably the new audience that the game creators were hoping to attract, along with the folks who already play 3D games. I think that L.A. Noire is definitely a “crossover” game – an attempt to draw readers and cinema-goers into gaming. From a marketing perspective, the ads I’ve seen for L.A. Noire definitely emphasize the action-adventure aspect, showing lots of gun-play and violence, obviously aimed at existing gamers who are still at the core of its potential market.

However, the “How-to” videos I’ve seen of L.A. Noire remind me of the behind-the-scenes extras you’d get on a special edition DVD of your favourite movie. Here, production values, innovation and name-brand performers are all promoted and explained, which adds a new level of credibility. Overall, L.A. Noire and its marketing and promotion seem to have a very strong cinematic feel.

A More Mature Approach?

If 3D gaming were a coin with GTA on one side, Noire could be the other side, opposite in goals and attitude. In Noire, you play a cop fighting corruption and lawlessness, instead of embracing it as in GTA. The major emphasis of Noire seems to be on strategy, deduction, and observation, and not just action, although it still has a good deal of that. The soundtrack is different too, made up of period jazz and swing music that probably wouldn’t appeal to many younger gamers. Overall, it feels like this is a gaming experience that was designed as a cinematic period piece, for a more patient, mature audience.

From the promo clips and walk-throughs that I’ve seen so far, there also seems to be a higher-level of artistic maturity and (IMHO) name-brand performance involved in L.A. Noire than in previous Rockstar games, like GTA. (Set me straight if I’m wrong about that, GTA players. You know better than me.)

The creators of L.A. Noire say that the ability to use your emotional intelligence is a major factor in succeeding in this game. Because of the effectiveness with which characters in L.A. Noire portray realistic facial expressions and body motion, you can actually decide if a character is lying to you or is telling the truth based upon their facial ticks, dodgy eyes, or body language.

Aren’t these all emotional intelligence and empathetic skills? I remember reading about how the military would use 3D gaming platforms to develop combat training scenarios for young soldiers? Are sensitivity, social skills and good judgement now the skills that gamers will require to win? Can games now help a gamer develop those skills? I find that possibility totally fascinating.

Similar to how comic books shrugged off their childish associations from the 1940s to evolve into complex, challenging graphic novels written for a college crowd, 3D gaming may be evolving closer to cinema. At least in the case of  L.A. Noire, 3D gaming seems to be growing up.

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On Writing: “Anatomy of a Writer”

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

“Because a real writer pours every inch of energy into his words. Because when he writes, he doesn’t only lay words down on paper; he becomes the page. He goes beyond the grounded reality and bends it, his illusions so strong that they would fool anyone into believing they are real; the emotions he exposes so true that readers instinctively recognize them as more fundamentally honest and true than any of the words they might read on a newspaper.”

Every so often, particularly if I’m returning to a project I haven’t developed in a while, it helps to have the “reset Button” pushed on one’s perspective and expectations. This article pushed it for me.

As they say, “Writers write.”

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Mourning Coughey (A story sketch)

The bagel gave its secrets to me limply and without a fight. I was hungry and it got what was coming to it. They always do, stupid bagels.

The sky was grey and overcast, threatening to rain. Large trucks blasted their horns irritably at little cars that were too slow to get out of their way. I knew I was going to end up trudging home in the rain again.

I blinked hard, trying to clear away the mental fog from a sleepless, sweaty night. I’d spent most of it fretting uselessly over problems belonging to other people – chasing stranger’s ghosts down unfamiliar alleys. How can you find something when you can’t even remember what you were looking for?

I went over the situation again, step-by-step: I hadn’t touched that golden writing project in around a year. It was the next big thing for me. Maybe it would buy me a seat at the published writers table. Back then, I knew it was going to be amazing – better than my last (first) book anyway. Way better.

But the momentum I’d held in my brain and hands when I’d last worked on it had long since seeped off, bled out, dried up and been swept away by the first-person drama that took hold of me in the real world. Trivial things like keeping a job, questioning my life, pitching a job into the dustbin, and then eventually finding a new one. It’s amazing how quickly the prospect of facing your own personal economic downturn can turn an impassioned dreamer into a practical, brim-wearing bean counter. That zero-line in the bank balance was getting a little closer each day. Brother, can you spare a thousand bucks?

This is your waking life, buddy. You can’t dream it away, but you’ll keep swimming upstream against its relentless oncoming pressure like the gallant little goldfish that you are, dragging your baggage behind you, hoping to turn old ballast into new fuel.

I took a deep drink from my mug and thanked the Benevolent Hand That Had Created It. Thank god the coffee was good, and still hot. And the sun was peeking out now. That was something. Okay, smart guy – it’s time to try and scribble down that next big idea.

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On Writing: Having Uncommon Thoughts in Common

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, you really can’t see the outside shape of it.

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, I don’t think that you really can see the outside shape of it. You’re too close to it.

On Having an Outsiders View of Things

By outsider, I’m thinking of someone who goes against societal norms, conventions or values, especially in cases where they wish to help someone else who is less fortunate.

Dickens and David Copperfield

I tried to read Copperfield back when I was about twelve. We had inherited a few classics in old hardcover editions, which I’m guessing could have been from the early teens of the century. Being something of a fetishist for old things, I took David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn to my bookshelf, like a thief in the night. I wish I still had those old books. I got through Huck Finn without any trouble, but Dickens’ complex, florid style stopped me cold after a few pages, and I never went back, until recently. Thirty years later.

Anyway, Dickens had really gotten to me when I finished reading Copperfield last month. It struck me just how much I felt in agreement with the social values that he communicated through his characters. He boldly ran counter to the class-snobbery of his day, imbuing the poorest folk with the purest ethics and strongest character. David felt compassion for others, and tried to help them even when he himself would suffer because of it. Especially, Dickens seemed to care for the suffering of children living in poverty.

I recall one character (maybe Wilkins Macawber?) stating that you cannot judge a book by its cover. As a young lad, David was not well-off at all, and went out of his way to demonstrate character traits that one wouldn’t expect from such a young person. I heard David’s voice in my head, throughout the course of his “life” in the novel, and identified with his ethics, humanity, strengths and weaknesses.

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep, and More…

The two Raymond characters who stand out in my mind the most are probably his most famous: Phillip Marlowe, and The Continental Op. Marlowe’s clear-minded, almost weary cynicism, and keen observations of the weaknesses in the ethics of others fascinates me. At first, I found some of Chandler’s use of period vernacular to be too frequent (almost to the point of obscuring meaning, rather than accentuating the colour of it), although I’ve come to appreciate how skilled he was at it, and how difficult it is to create punchy, compelling and rich dialogue that portrays the personalities, motivations and world of each character. Chandler wrote as if he was having fun with his colourful, smirking, almost expressionistic similes. You were allowed to accept his artistic license with tongue in cheek. Marlowe seemed a bit too flipant or devil-may-care, but he was no chump, and neither were you, thanks to Chandler. (I think the makers of the James Bond movies used this same kind of flippant tone. Ian Fleming did not, in his original novels, although he admitted to being a big fan of Raymond Chandler.)

Jeff Lindsay’s “Darkly Dreaming Dexter”

Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan (you know – from that TV series?) is a unique mix of cold-blooded serial killer and objective observer of the human condition. He’s bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the emotions of his friends (and his victims), and searching to validate  his own existence. He kind of sees himself as the trash collector of the universe, killing those most despicable monsters – child killers, rapists, pedophile priests – whom he decides deserve it, according to The Code of Harry.

Dexter is highly intelligent, wryly funny, and in many ways, truly superior, and yet, he is bereft of real emotional reactions (i.e. sociopathic), so plays an elaborate game of pretend in order to pass as normal to his coworkers and the rest of the waking world.

Something in Common with Uncommon Voices?

What is it that makes me feel kinship to someone who died well before I was born? I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed David Copperfield, and hearing Dickens’ voice. Chandler’s voice acts on me similarly: I feel a familiar personality at work in my head, some recognizable territory that I’ve visited in the past, but remains a little fresh each time I see it again.

I think that the intimate, personal sense of recognition that I have with these two authors has a lot to do with their characters’ first-person perspective: David Copperfield, The Big Sleep (and all the other Phillip Marlowe stories I’ve read by Chandler), and Darkly Dreaming Dexter are all written in the first person. It’s incredibly personal, intimate and effective – putting the reader right into the protagonist’s point of view.

Perhaps because I live in my head so much of the time, I enjoy living in someone else’s head in the same way.

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On Reviews: How NOT to Respond (or “Do this, and sink your writing career”)

When I read this exchange between an author and a reviewer on a public community blog, I was stunned, and a little fascinated:

http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett.html

The author refuses to acknowledge the points the reviewer (a volunteer) made, and soon became combative and even verbally abusive! It was a fascinating example of an emotional meltdown by a (fragile) author, and the resulting wave of community support for the attacked reviewer. Some commentators also worried that the tenor of the exchanges would reflect poorly on the perception of self-published authors in general, and reinforce a stigma against “indies” by the publishing industry.

I do not revel in the pain of others, but this author’s reaction to what seems to be fair criticism fascinated me in the same way that I’m fascinated by videos of fools injuring themselves undertaking ridiculously dangerous stunts, crashing their ATVs, or taking golf balls to the crotch. All these self-inflicted injuries to the ego and the flesh fall under the category of “EPIC FAIL”.

Now, it’s gone viral on Twitter…

So here are a couple of lessons that you can take away from the above example:

  1. If you can’t say something professional, say nothing at all: If you voluntarily submit your work to any kind of critique, always take reviews calmly and professionally! Learn from them. If you can’t do this, it’s better not to respond at all.
  2. Take responsibility for your words: Information and commentary published online may remain there indefinitely, or may be republished or syndicated continually. You words (or words that are electronically associated with your content or online identity) will be indexed by Google or any number of other search engines and propagation methods.

Bottom line: act like a pro, and you’ll be treated like one.

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On Writing: Visualization and Collage in Storytelling…

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning. I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts.

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning.

I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts. The relationships that are created by placing elements next to each other create new contexts and meanings that each element did not originally possess individually.

As I write, I’m transcribing visual scenes in my head into words. Sometimes, I’m acting like a court reporter sitting in a movie theatre, watching my characters speak, smelling what they smell, listening to the sounds of their surroundings, and feeling their emotions. In my head, I’ve already shot the scene as a movie, and now the challenge is to get that scene down on paper in a way that will be powerful and will resonate in my reader’s mind.

Many scenes can be drawn out of snippets of personal experience, opinions, current events, and one’s own worldview or inner monologue. Each of these elements is a small scrap of paper with an image on it, waiting to be pasted down on a board along with other scraps, to contribute a piece to an overall theme.

I often think up the elements or “little scraps” first: an intriguing personality, a moment of tension, despair, or heroism, or a mysterious moment or place. A story is made up of many such individual scenes, each of which must have its own internal logic, beginning, middle and end, and each of which must work within the context of the greater story or plot.

If I can’t see how to use them, a lot of these elements get filed away somewhere for later use. It’s tough to know which elements to bring out of the drawer and place on the table, and which ones need to be kept in the file. Every little scrap is a piece of life experience.

We all have experiences, and some of us have had similar experiences. The challenge for me as a storyteller is to find and create the scraps that will seem familiar to someone else (because I want to know that I can reach my audience emotionally and culturally), and to combine the scraps into a collage of pieces that says these things to my reader: you may know this story, my friend. You’ve read it many times before in different guises. Some things are universal to human experience. You may have heard the story before, but you haven’t heard it from this storyteller in this way before.

Universal things happen to all of us, but come to each of us in a different way. That’s why the story is interesting, and why the collection of parts makes a unique picture on the page.

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On Writing: Emily Carr’s life stories are an inspiration…

I just finished reading “The Emily Carr Collection”, which includes four of her books: Klee Wyck, The Book of Small, The House of All Sorts, and Growing Pains. Emily Carr’s voice has become familiar and sympathetic to me. Reading her is like listening to an old friend. In my mind, she is not Emily Carr, internationally reknowned Canadian painter. She’s just Emily.

I just finished reading “The Emily Carr Collection”, which includes four of her books: “Klee Wyck”, “The Book of Small”, “The House of All Sorts”, and “Growing Pains”.

Emily Carr’s voice has become familiar and sympathetic to me. Reading her is like listening to an old friend. In my mind, she is not Emily Carr, internationally renowned Canadian painter.

She’s just Emily.

I find it ironic that I never read her writing before. Here on the west coast of Canada, she’s an icon. I’ve heard about her since high school. The art college I studied at for four years was named after her. I’ve seen her paintings a number of times in the Vancouver Art Gallery downtown. But I never heard her voice.

Emily’s passion for her natural surroundings and her love of Western Canada is evident ion the way she describes every person, plant and animal. In particular, her description of forests, trees, and totems are vivid, portraying the life growing around her, and the symbolic life that the natives imbued in their totems and houses. Emily felt this quite deeply.

Her friendships with the natives in her time (poor, sweet Sophie!), her sensitivity to unfairness and hypocrisy as a young child raised in the English tradition, and her continuous pursuit of her artistic truths – all these themes resonated with me so strongly. The impression I have of Emily is that she was not a religious person at all, except insofar as it was required by her family and culture. Spiritually, I think Emily identified most with the nature and native art of her beloved west coast of British Columbia.

Almost 100 years separates us (Victoria would be absolutely unrecognizable to Emily if she were to see it today), but still, the connection and recognition I feel is very strong indeed.

When Emily describes Victoria places such as Cook Street, Fort Street, Fairfield Road, and Rockland Avenue – these are streets that I romped along as a little kid in Victoria in the 1970s. When she describes a little old lady strolling by outside her parent’s fence while she was playing in the yard with her sisters – I can picture the same thing happening to me and my sister Kim, as we played in the front yard of Poppy’s house at the corner of Cook and Rockland. Christ Church Cathedral, Beacon Hill Park and its Peacocks, the look and smell of Arbutus and Cedar trees – all of it touches me in a personal way. We lived in different worlds, but something seems to have persisted through her words…

She’s also just an inspiring, amazingly strong woman. Her determination to follow her own path, and her unwavering love of living things – these were personality traits that I thought my sister Kim could appreciate, so for Christmas this year, I sent Kim a copy of “The House of All Sorts”, which focuses especially on Emily’s success as a dog breeder, and her struggles as a landlady. On the one hand is the unwavering devotion and love of her dogs for her, and on the other hand, the cruelty, idiocy, and deceit of many of her human tenants in the House of All Sorts. These were themes that I think my sister Kim could probably appreciate.

True Life – My Own Memoir

Reading Emily’s biography also inspires me to continue developing me own. Since about 1998, I’ve been slowly cobbling together an illustrated life story on my website, at http://truelife.ejohnlove.com

I think that I must one day work harder to complete True Life, or perhaps bring it to life in a book. I love fiction – reading and writing – but there is something very powerful about reading someone’s autobiography. Literally, the realness of the thing makes it so much more powerful.

Of all I read from Emily, the biggest theme I took away was to maintain one’s integrity, and one’s personal vision – to remain true to oneself.

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On Narrative: A Story runs through it…

It’s amazing how pervasive the concept of “narrative” actually is. Now, wherever I look, I see a story being told, or something in front of my eyes that is trying to communicate with me. But Non-fiction has an inherent narrative of its own too… What About text in Interactive Environments? Does it contribute a narrative as well? Perhaps we’re back to Marshall McLuhan again…

It’s amazing how pervasive the concept of “narrative” actually is. Now, wherever I look, I see a story being told, or something in front of my eyes that is trying to communicate with me.

Obviously, a story, a narrative, is the basis of written fiction, and creating an effective and engaging narrative is more difficult than I had originally imagined when I set out to write “Owe Nothing” back in 2002.

Works of Fiction, obviously…

Works of fiction (and I’m thinking primarily of the “paperback novel” genre) have a common narrative structure which introduces characters and a situation, presents the characters with a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome, and after trials, successes and failures, brings their story to a close with some sort of resolution and reflection. All of this (if popularity to an outside audience is the author’s goal) should be emotionally or intellectually gratifying to the reader in some way, or provide some sort of entertaining escape.

“Voice” in fiction can be first-person (like any hard-boiled detective caper by Raymond Chandler), where the reader is effectively transplanted into the skull of the main character, seeing things (usually) exclusively through his/her eyes. Or itr may be third-person, where the narration of the story seems to come from a camera or invisible observer which is observing the thoughts and activities of all characters, everywhere.

But Non-fiction has an inherent narrative of its own too…

Non-fiction works also have their own kind of voices that “tells a story” of sorts as well. In instruction or technical manuals, both the first-person and the third-person voice shows up quite commonly.

First-person is used when your Instructor is talking to you, the Reader directly, or when the author is citing some personal experience that is relevant to a lesson or point of procedure.

Third-person, in my experience, is used when the manual (or in my most common experience, a user guide) has no one particular person named as the “author” per se, but is ostensibly written by a corporation for their customers. In that case, the voice that is narrating could be composed by multiple unknown, uncredited authors, blended together (“fingerprints removed”, if you will) by a technical writer.

What About text in Interactive Environments? Does it contribute a narrative as well?

In a word, yes. In my opinion, every word on a web page, including the text in links, navigation buttons, mottos and tag lines, all provide context that reinforces the narrative at hand, so almost in effect becoming part of the narrative itself. (This is my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

The major difference with a visual medium (in this case, the user interface of a web site) is the use of graphic visual language that adds the extra dimension of inferred meaning or context to the wordy narrative.

Parsing photographs, words, icons, and interpreting (feeling) colours in a design is all part of “reading the page”. The designer of it has infused their own cultural symbols, values or expectations to some degree, so that the audience can relate to it more effectively.

Perhaps we’re back to Marshall McLuhan again…

If the cover of your favourite book, or the navigation controls on your favourite eBook Reader, have become strongly associated with the words in the text, then I’d say that the medium will have indeed become entwined in the message.

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