Message in a Bottle
From Clay Tablets to Cell Phones

The chattering classes (a phrase coined by Auberon Waugh, son of novelist Evelyn Waugh) continue to debate the future of print. Literacy itself is on the upswing, as text messaging pushes aside voice mail and crawling chyrons take up increasing acreage on our TV screens, so pundits are less concerned than they once were about images replacing words completely. They’re still worked up about how those words will be delivered to us, though. Will everyone be reading eBooks or …. what to call them? Apparently we’ll soon need a retronym to clarify what we’re talking about, much as we now must specify “acoustic guitar” or “analog clock.” For now I’ll stick to calling them what they are, thanks—books.

The topic has been so much discussed that it’s grown more than a little tiresome. We at Island Books are happy to sell you a story in bits and bytes or on paper, as you prefer, and we try not make a big song and dance about it. More interesting, perhaps, is the question of how writers are creating their stories. That is, how does a tale turn from a mere fizzing in the mind into words that can be read?

imageThings started, of course, with the oral tradition. Bards around campfires told and retold stories for thousands of years before the idea of writing was born. The earliest examples of stories being permanently preserved in print come from around 2600 BC, when the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Egyptians began pressing cuneiform into clay tablets and carving hieroglyphs on stone walls. The most significant of these is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a tale of creation and destruction that still speaks to modern audiences. Papyrus, parchment, and paper were developed as the centuries passed, as were various alphabets that made writing easier, but authors continued to produce work by hand. Even after the development of the printing press in the 15th century, a story had to start as a manuscript. It wasn’t until 1883 that this changed.

imageimageThat was the year that Mark Twain employed a newfangled invention and submitted a typewritten copy of Life on the Mississippi to his publisher.  He’d handwritten it first and then had a secretary type it up. The technology took off soon after, and it wasn’t long before authors began composing right on the machine. Around the turn of the 20th century, Henry James dictated many of his novels to a typist, and fifty years later, Jack Kerouac famously bashed out On the Road in just two weeks in front of the keyboard. Harking back to ancient times, he typed onto a continuous scroll of paper instead of onto individual sheets.

Soon another innovation took root. As described in a recent Slate article, English thriller writer Len Deighton became the first person to write a novel via a word processor in 1968. The device weighed 200 pounds and had to be hoisted into his home with a crane. Much like Twain, Deighton required the assistance of a professional; it was a woman named Ellenor Handley who actually entered the words into the contraption so that fans could read Bomber.image

Nowadays we’re all using computers to write, or most of us are. A few holdouts, including Will Self and Cormac McCarthy, cling to their Underwoods and Olivettis (Olivettii?), but I certainly didn’t hand-write this before you read it. What’s next? Well, readers in Japan are enjoying something called the “cell phone novel,” consisting of short chapters of under a hundred words sent by text message. Presumably most, if not all of these are “written” by a pair of thumbs dancing across a handheld device. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the proliferation of this trend, but I won’t discount it. People probably laughed at the first scribe who switched from counting sheep to telling stories, and look how far that got us.


Ghost Stories

Scary Stories to Tell in the DarkIt’s October, and that means Halloween is coming. And along with that, creepy stories. Have you heard the one about the kid whose friends dared him to spend a night in a haunted house?

He took the challenge and late one Saturday night, he took his sleeping bag and pushed open the creaking front door. The house was deserted. He made his bed on the floor of the living room, praying he would fall asleep fast so this would be over quickly. A few minutes went by, and then, he heard it. Wrap….Wrap…Wrap. It was a distinctive sound, coming from somewhere inside the house. He figured it was just the wind and turned over. Again it came. Wrap…Wrap…Wrap. “Okay,” he thought. “I better shut that window.”

He heard it again. Wrap…Wrap…Wrap. It sounded like it was coming from upstairs. He followed the noise and with each step it got louder. The noise sounded angry and he was getting scared. His friends better pay up when this was over.

Wrap…Wrap…Wrap. The noise seemed to be coming from a closet down the hall. Wrap…Wrap…Wrap. He walked towards it until the sound was so loud he had to cover his ears. Wrap…Wrap…Wrap.  "This is it," he thought, and with great fanfare, he threw the door open and screamed.

Inside the closet sat some wrapping paper.

Okay, so it wasn’t the best story you’ve ever heard, but it sure freaked me out when my dad told it when I was five. Soon after I was reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark under the covers with a flashlight. There’s no better way to get the most out of Halloween than reading some good old-fashioned horror.

If you aren’t scared yet, here are a few other deliciously creepy tales to read in front of the fire with the lights off. If you dare.

Nightmares  & Dreamscapes

Nightmares & Dreamscapes by Stephen King: Featuring twenty short horror stories, a television script, an essay, and a poem, Nightmares and Dreamscapes contains unique and chilling plots including everything from dead rock star zombies to evil toys seeking murderous revenge.

The Tell-Tale HeartThe Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe: Revisit one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous and chilling stories about a man who takes the life of an older man for a really bizarre reason. The nameless man tells the story of the murder in order to prove his sanity.

The Turn of the ScrewThe Turn of the Screw by Henry James: A young governess is the only one who can see the ghosts of the previous governess and her lover, and so no one believes her when she insists the ghosts are controlling the two orphaned children for some evil purpose.

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