BOOKS
01/20/2015 01:29 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

James Patterson's Disappearing Book: Sales Gimmick Or Future Plot Device?

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How many books have you been “meaning to read”? Personally I’ve avoided contact with the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels since Christmas (I know it’ll be all-consuming) and am ashamed to admit I don’t even own a copy of War and Peace for similar reasons. But if you were to tell me that all issues of either of these books would soon dematerialize, you’d find me planted on a couch for the next several days, fully engrossed in reading.

Which is why James Patterson’s self-destructing book Private Vegas is a thought-provoking -- if problematic -- experiment. Releasing this week, it follows recurring protagonist Jack Morgan from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where a chain of seedy happenings is set off after his car is firebombed. The story's par for the Patterson course, but includes an inventive interactive element -- only 1,000 readers will be able to download the book, and 24 hours after beginning, it will disappear in a cloud of smoke. Like Eterna Cadencia's novel printed in disappearing ink, it allows us to consider whether a little instilled FOMO is all the book world needs to compete commercially with more event-centric media, like TV.

"A little instilled FOMO is all the book world needs to compete commercially with more event-centric media, like TV."

A press release describes Private Vegas as a “nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat experience,” for which 1,000 readers will have the opportunity to unlock the story and “race to the end” in 24 hours, before it “disappears in a cinematic and spectacular way.” Sounds like a fun device, but this setup raises a few questions: Shouldn’t the language of a novel be enough to build tension, and encourage readers to continue? And isn’t a book, no matter how plot-driven, supposed to be one of the few forms of entertainment we can preserve, revisit and build upon?

Regardless, this Monday I opted not to read the conclusion to Ferrante’s glowing trilogy, and instead curled up with an iPad, ready to speed through Private Vegas, which is best summarized thusly:

Jack Morgan’s pal has been thrown in jail, wrongly accused of a heinous crime against his saucy, long-legged ex with long legs. In addition to long legs, which she has, she’s also got a loose-fitting blouse and heels that make you forget you’re supposed to be reading a story with an actual plot. To find out what happens next, keep reading before this book literally explodes.

One of the app’s features allows readers to see how far others made it before their novels expired. While I sputtered along on Jack’s escapades and wordy descriptions of expensive vehicles and women's hairstyles, most readers gave up -- or ran out of time -- about a third of the way in. Thrilling event or not, in this case it seemed true that compelling language and empathetic characters mattered more than edgy graphics and the comfort that comes with a neat conclusion.

"Compelling language and empathetic characters mattered more than edgy graphics and the comfort that comes with a neat conclusion."

But Patterson’s off-the-mark attempt to turn a single story into an event that exists beyond readers’ imaginations, extending into their social circles and even their physical experience (one copy of Private Vegas, purchased for nearly $300,000, will literally self-destruct, with a trained bomb squad on site) doesn’t mean other fiction writers won’t explore that realm. David Mitchell's forthcoming novel was first constructed entirely on Twitter, with each line racking up handfuls of likes. Neil Gaiman, too, wrote an audiobook including a mashup of his own writings and suggestions made by the Twitterverse, which he credited as a co-author.

Such unconventional works may subvert our understanding of literature (and, in Gaiman's case, of authorship). Literary works that create moods and consider context rather than encouraging page-turning aren't exactly hash-taggable, nor should they be. But, in theory, stories with immersive plots could be transformed into cultural events when given a specific time peg. In Mitchell's case, the steady stream of tweets kept readers hooked. In Patterson's, the uneasiness that comes with potentially never knowing the book's conclusion is an incentive. Consider, also, that the one reliable metric in predicting a book's placement on a bestseller list is its impending movie adaptation release date. If everyone else will soon be discussing a story, it's unlikely to grow cobwebs.

The concept of a collaborative reading experience may be grumbled about by some -- after all, is the private act of exploring another's thoughts not special? -- but decriers should be reminded that "The Bachelor" isn't the only form of entertainment religiously logged on Twitter. Even art exhibitions conductive to interaction, such as Christian Marclay's "The Clock," have their own hashtags.

In many ways the book world, with our trending literary puns and obsessive Goodreads starring, is hungry for a way to make reading more social. Perhaps giving stories expiration dates is one way of achieving that.

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