Thinking Outside the Book: Paul La Farge's Luminous Airplanes Takes Off Online

Clicking “help” on the website, for example, you find a passage that starts like this: “My god, you think you need help? You’re not the one sitting in his room in New Haven, Connecticut, right now, wondering what the hell happened to your life.” Elsewhere, the narrator bristles at the idea that his tributaries of text are comparable to the Choose Your Own Adventure series: “Every time I tell someone that I am working on a hypertext that branches in many different directions, they say, ‘Oh, like those books where you turn to page 45 if you open the treasure chest.’” This tone is jarringly different from the book, where the narrator is more confessional at some points than at others, but mostly has a traditional, sealed-off relationship to the reader.

“Direct address seemed like a natural way to proceed [online],” Mr. La Farge said, “because there are fewer layers between the writer and the reader—no editor, no publisher, no bookstore, just a kind of screen-to-screen contact, or at least the fantasy thereof.” Whether that address comfortably fits with the rest of the work, time will tell, but it makes clear that the website is not just a dump for B-roll footage; it’s a project all its own, distinct from the bound pages.

Mr. La Farge is launching his novel’s website against an industry-wide backdrop of, depending on your perspective, innovation or desperation. Conventional wisdom these days has books dead, with only the precise form of their afterlife left to be determined. Will they exist only as curios for art collectors? Will they simply migrate as is onto e-readers? Or will they be absorbed into other media in a way that makes the very idea of sustained reading antiquated?

A recently launched company called Booktrack sells customized soundtracks that add “synchronized music, sound effects and ambient sound to the text of your favorite e-books.” (Simply add visuals to that mix, and you’ve got a thrilling new invention called the movie.) Booktrack is not just meddling with contemporary books like those by James Frey, an early supporter of the company’s mission. It will also pump up the volume on such swooning classics as Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet, suggesting the venture could be a boon for the royalties of dewy alt-rock bands like Snow Patrol, if nothing else. The soundtrack “really … enhances your imagination,” Booktrack co-founder Paul Cameron recently told The New York Times, presumably with a straight face. For anyone who thinks the other way around—that one’s imagination should do the enhancing—times are tough.

On a more promising note, independent publisher Melville House recently introduced its line of “HybridBooks.” The name might conjure dreary images of books passing nights plugged in next to the Prius in the garage, but the product is a digital batch of smart material related to the book— maps, essays, historical facts, reviews—that can be enjoyed as obtrusively or unobtrusively as you like.

Ticking off influences for the project, Mr. La Farge cited mostly innovative books on paper, like Tristram Shandy, Pale Fire, and Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, which he called “essentially a hypertext in print form.”

Thinking Outside the Book: Paul La Farge's Luminous Airplanes Takes Off Online