Thomas Pynchon's video for "Inherent Vice" (garnering more than 126,000 views) perhaps best captures the imagination because Pynchon himself reads from the opening passage of the book.
"If you're driving south from L.A. International, you should take no more than a hit or two off of your favorite brand of cigarette before you're right here in Gordita Beach, Calif.," he says in voiceover, accompanied by the sounds of jangly garage rock and grainy footage of SoCal streets and landscapes. "Later on, this is all going to go high-rise, high-rent, high-intensity. But right now, back in 1970, what it is is just high."
Pynchon gives enough of a taste to get you hooked before ending with a verbal shrug of the shoulders: "Maybe you just want to read the book," and then expresses mock disgust at the price. "$27.95, really? That used to be, like, three weeks of groceries, man."
"It works because it happens to have one of our greatest living geniuses — and one of the most reclusive men of letters of all time — doing a voiceover," Mendelsund said. "To me, that was the thing. You could have shot anything and had Pynchon do the voiceover and it would have been interesting. I can't tell you how many times in my mind I've thought, 'What does this man's voice sound like?' The fact that he's involved in any way gives it an imprimatur that you could never have in any other way. You could take still photos of your cat, and (if) Thomas Pynchon is narrating, trust me, it would be really interesting."
Only a select number of authors have that kind of caché. And frankly, some authors can write like the devil, but are a snore when they talk. But Mendelsund's notion of the imprimatur is perhaps a direction worth pursuing.
The video blurb
In the fall, Sloan's novel "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with a narrative set at the intersection of books and technology. Clearly, he has given much thought to this dynamic and began experimenting recently with a series of "Summer Reading" videos on his blog. They are simple and low-fi. Just Sloan, shot from the neck up, standing in front of a white background. But he has a natural charisma and he knows how to express himself entertainingly and succinctly. "It's the 'Reading Rainbow' format," he said, referring to the old PBS show. "It's like an earnest kid sitting in front of the camera saying, 'I read this book and liked it, and here's why you should read it, too.' To me that feels native to the world of books in the way that a dramatic trailer just doesn't."
He makes a persuasive case. "Just two rules," he says in the first video. "One: These are books I've read and loved. Two: These books are not new. They're not buzz-worthy. They're simply good." A smile plays at his lips. "They were good when they were published, and their goodness has only increased with the passing of years." The man is visibly excited to talk about books, and it is infectious.
What it is not is artistic. Or in any way visually captivating. But maybe book videos don't need to be.
"What I would totally watch," Sloan said, "would be somebody kind of famous — like an actor or a musician or just somebody really smart who I could recognize — looking into the camera and recommending a book. Or if there's some great nonfiction book coming out in the fall, and it was a video of some statesman or politician or a media personality saying, 'I just read this book, it was awesome, here's why you need to check it out.' That's really compelling."
If the right celebrity were able to speak with intelligence, passion and wit for a couple minutes about a book, I could see that going viral. (Oprah Winfrey is an ace at this sort of thing.) I suggested to Sloan that this sounded like the 21st Century version of the book jacket blurb.
"I hadn't even made that connection myself, but that's exactly right," he said. "As we're looking for these media forms that are native to the book world, what's more native than the blurb? And so maybe we should change our thinking. Instead of making book trailers, you make video blurbs."
As a filmmaker, Davis has different ambitions. "When videos go viral, it's because they have that element of 'Wow, I've never seen that before.' They're easy and simple to describe: This is really funny; this is really terrifying; this is really extreme."
Both he and Mendelsund speculate that videos could potentially become the visual face of the book "in the way that right now a book cover is the face," said Davis. "It has to be an interpretation and an act of adaptation. How do you adapt a book into its own little thing? Once we figure that out, maybe the next face of the book is actually this moving thing that lives online and is also the cover when you download it on your Kindle.
"And when you think of it that way, then it very clearly becomes part of the reading experience. It's the beginning of the reading experience, rather than a teaser."
All that's missing is a centralized clearinghouse for these videos — the kind of savvily designed website that could transform the tedious act of sifting through content into an experience of discovery. For now, the online landscape remains undeveloped. But perhaps somewhere in Silicon Valley, there is a book-loving entrepreneur plotting a business that could change the paradigm forever.
Nina Metz covers film, TV and theater for the Tribune.
This piece ran in full in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.
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