Joseph Gordon-Levitt is jubilant in his YouTube announcement for The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Vol. 2 (see below). “I know you’re going to be looking for presents this holiday season…LOOK NO FURTHER!” he shouts, waving his tiny copy of his tiny book of tiny stories all over the screen. It’s true that this tiny book would make a dandy stocking stuffer for burgeoning literary types; the book is barely wider than an average-sized female palm and covered in blue textured cloth that dings up in a charming way when you leave it in a bag with the rest of your knickknacks. It’s portable, it’s “tactile”, as Gordon-Levitt states in the same video, and it’s a small but potent ode to the Book As Object, which is perfect considering the idea of it began online.
It began on Gordon-Levitt’s beloved hitRECord site, a collaborative venue for artists, writers, musicians, and community-minded creative dabblers. One of hitRECord’s most popular forums is Tiny Stories, where an anonymous someone contributes a short (i.e,. one- or two-sentence) story and another anonymous someone offers up a corresponding illustration, or vice versa. hitRECord self-published their first Tiny Stories collection, then the HarperCollins imprint IT Books offered a three-book deal. Volume 1 was released last December.
The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories derives from acts of the internet, online interaction, artistic encounters with total strangers. Usually, a physical book would have seemed like the standard starting point for a curated collection of words and pictures. Here the book is the ends and the internet is the means; the book is a static finish instead of a dynamic narrative; the book is a medium meant more for prestige—the work of 62 artists were chosen from a hefty 14,946 submissions on the site for Volume 2—and celebration than anything else.
Celebration of what? Of the sheer act of creating something? Of obscure folks having their work displayed in a volume sold by the hundreds in Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million? (Well, it’s not all ordinary folks. Sean Ono Lennon’s name stands out in the index of contributors.) If anything, Tiny Stories celebrates exquisite ordinariness: normal thoughts expressed in unusual ways, or outlandish thoughts expressed in normal ways.
Those hoping for the collaborations to be like little eggs of obscured genius waiting to be unshelled might be disappointed. The picture/word combinations are often adolescent, even puerile, and certainly not meant to be complex—just clever, or emotional, or pleasantly simple. A sample story: “Weathered wandering wayfarers watched wickedly whiskered William whittle wonders with withering wood while warring with wild whirling winds.” The drawing on the opposite page depicts, with intricate pencil lines and shading, a wizened Gandalf type carving an old tree into a dragon in front of a band of admiring onlookers.
Literal doesn’t mean unfunny; the size of the stories reminds one that humor doesn’t require many words to exist. Evidence: the smudgy silhouette of two figures alongside the statement that “Ambiguity lived in a place with some people who did some things.”
Honest emotional experiences on the internet usually demand two things: anonymity and community. The anonymity lets people let loose, and the community gives people an audience to which they can freely emote. The blogging platform Tumblr (and before that, LiveJournal, and before that, Xanga) provides both. On Tumblr, you can pick a username, publish your feelings and secrets, and thousands of people can ‘like’ and ‘reblog’ and ‘follow’ as validation. HitRecord’s Tiny Stories forum contains plenty of these digital outpourings of emotions, whether in pictorial or verbal form, but the ones that made it to the printed book feel like they were still the most polished and viewable of the lot.
Now, everyone from music bloggers to your mom (who just started culling together decorating inspiration on Pinterest) is a “curator”. And curators are either the new superheroes of the web, or just filthy bloggers, depending on whom you ask. Tiny Stories is a curated book and it needs to be, or else it would drown in too much unrefined emotion. hitRECord needs an editorial eye—hence, Gordon-Levitt and his colleagues pick the best of the best and encourage the rest to keep submitting.
On page 57 is a striking little illustration of a long-haired dude in v-neck t-shirt and sneakers. He wields two drumsticks and kicks over his kick drum. The rest of the kit has already been overturned, save for a cymbal that appears to tilting in fear. The sentence accompanying the drawing: “We agreed from the start: all mood, no message.” The mood and message of Tiny Stories: Vol. 2 are one and the same: joyful, unfettered creativity will set you free. Should you have someone on your holiday shopping list in need of an artistic pick-me-up, hitRECord’s second volume of tiny stories will provide sufficient inspiration.
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