To the sceptical and the uninitiated, I totally understand why you might roll your eyes at the idea of ambient literature. Why on earth would you want to be conscious of yourself and your surroundings when the whole point of reading a book is to lose yourself in someone else’s world, right?
I felt the same way and approached my first interactive reading experience cynically. I expected to be irritated by the constant reference to my location when all I wanted to do was escape it. I made huge assumptions about how strange it would be to feel like I was part of a story that I didn’t know yet. I thought it would be disorienting and wildly impractical but wow, I was wrong.
Ambient literature is a relatively new concept. Simply put, it's a style of book that’s actually meant to be read on your phone. We're not talking about another version of the Kindle app; this takes digital reading to a whole new level. The idea is that it uses information like your location, time and weather to personalise the story and draw you into it, literally. Everything syncs to your surroundings by the power of geotags and mobile data, and you suddenly have a constantly evolving narrative in the palm of your hands. It's the product of a huge two-year project by UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University and the University of Birmingham, and one of the novels to come out of it is crazy good.
Breathe by Kate Pullinger is a story specifically written for your smartphone. Take yourself (and your phone) outside, open the website where the novel lives and you'll be advised to let the book know you're ready to begin. Click to confirm access to your camera and location (trust me, it's worth it and they promise none of the data collected is stored online) and you're in.
First thing to know is that Breathe is a ghost story which, even if spooky isn't your genre of choice, works in the favour of the whole experience. It's about a young woman called Flo and when you jump into the narrative you'll be suitably haunted by how quickly your reality merges with her strange, fictional life.
"Welcome to the world of Flo," the introduction text reads. "She can talk to ghosts. And she knows where you are." It's here you'll find your first clue as to how creepy this whole thing can get. You won't notice it, but your phone will have taken a photo by now. Not of you, just of the surroundings, and it's this image that'll reappear as you make your way through the book, as a continuous reminder that Flo's story is about you, too.
Her narration is frequently interrupted by a secondary dialogue from what we can only assume is a ghost. A ghost who'll tell you that she's on the road you're currently walking down – she'll name your precise location out of nowhere and, yes, it's pretty unsettling. You'll double take at the text, unsure whether you read it correctly. You definitely did, and so you'll spend the rest of the story looking over your shoulder.
As you read on there'll be more references to your surroundings. Flo told me that she recognises my face in the crowd at Old Street (the closest station to R29 HQ). She said she often sits at a café across the road from where I am.
Tilt your screen and you'll spot some hidden text. Tap the screen on certain pages and you'll reveal the photo that your phone took a little while earlier. Swipe too quickly and you'll miss text being typed, deleted and retyped just to up the ante a little bit. Wildly clever and terrifyingly accurate is the only way to describe it. The concept of immersive reading has just been taken to a whole new level and I'm here for it. Never before have I actively enjoyed reading on my phone, but when you're thrown into a story that very much relies on you reading it in the first place, it's hard to resist the intrigue of what will happen next.