Friday, 19 June 2009

On Conches and Conversation

The change of time zone that comes with my current business travels in the US allowed me to take part in the Twitter Book Club discussion (#tbc) on Monday 15th June 9pm EST. Although there is nothing to stop me taking part from the UK, I’m not entirely sure in normal circumstances I’d want it to be visible to my friends, family & colleagues that I’d been wide awake tweeting between 2-3am GMT. Insomnia is public in Twitter.

Monday’s #tbc was a fascinating hour (anyone on Twitter can see the exchanges posted by searching on #tbc). The discussion was of Lloyd Jones’ novel Mr Pip, first published in 2006 – so a book that has been doing the rounds for some time. (I embarrassed myself by enthusing about it at home last week whereupon Ellie (15) rolled her eyes and replied “I read it last year and told you it’s great….”)

Mr Pip was a smart choice for #tbc. Short, compelling, well-paced, full of ambiguities and unanswered questions, redolent with literary references (which while they can enhance enjoyment of the book, don’t detract if the reader is unfamiliar with them). The hour-long session produced some intriguing posts (not least the revelation that @MissLiberty has her mother up for sale on Craig’s List). But I’m not sure I’d call it a “conversation” in any conventional sense. Was it a book group? Well – in one sense, yes – we were a group of people focussing on the same book at the same time. And yes I’ve taken away some new ideas and thoughts that have increased my enjoyment of a great book that were not derived from my own individual reading.

Yet discussing a book with others in Twitter in a compressed time frame presents a number of challenges, the first of which is simply remembering to include the hashtag in each post. Forget the hashtag and no-one in the group will see your comments unless they happen to be following your tweets anyway. Using Tweetdeck helps as it enables the participant to create a separate #tbc column. Furthermore it seems to me there are four simultaneous and sometimes counteractive pressures in play when participating in such an event in Twitter: listening (reading), posting, chronology and speed. As the tweet stream emerges, framing an intelligent response in a 140-character bite quickly enough for it to arrive in anything like a logical juxtaposition to the tweet that prompted it is extremely challenging. Indeed it could be seen as an interactive art form all of its own. Forget Haiku: 140 character posts under speed in response to others are more difficult than 3-5-3 or even 5-7-5 syllables. The result is almost like the transcript of an intriguing discussion that someone has taken a pair of scissors to and randomly reorganised.

For those who haven’t read Mr Pip, I don’t want to give the plot away. However I will say that it is set on an island torn by civil-war and includes a violent scene including butchery and pigs. At one point I tweeted that both islands and pigs are freighted in literary terms because of the reference to Lord of the Flies. Since then, re-reading the #tbc tweetstream, I have realised that the whole #tbc concept has another fundamental parallel with Golding’s novel. Whilst I enjoyed participating, and will certainly do so again, insomnia permitting, at no point was it clear who was “holding the conch”. In a face-to-face group there is a joint focus on each person as they speak that simply is not possible in Twitter. So as things stand I’m divided over whether I’m frustrated by the limitations of or excited by the possibilities for using Twitter to encourage engagement with books. Why not join in and let me know what you think…?

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