The Virtual Book

11 min readJun 11, 2022


The Story

The first song of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi is hard to describe. It eases in with watery synths and a muted trumpet, then a jagged riff played simultaneously on bass guitar and bass clarinet. The repetition of the riff becomes our steadying grip as the pace quickens and more instruments enter the flurry, each swirling in its own direction. For thirteen minutes, we follow Herbie and his crew as they chase the thrill of charting new territory.

Navigating Herbie’s diverse discography is just as difficult. A musical genius with a tinkering habit, Herbie composed jazz standards like Cantaloupe Island in the 60s, made funk classics in the 70s, and brought DJ scratching into the mainstream in the 80s. Often he’d reinterpret his old compositions using whatever new sounds he was experimenting with. The new millennium still did not slow Herbie. In 2008, he took home the Grammy for Album of the Year for a tribute to singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Now in his 80s, he tours the world playing his music. Spanning decades and genres, Herbie’s career almost makes more sense as the work of Herbie Hancock, Herbie Hancock Jr, and Herbie Hancock III.

Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Band Live in Detroit Michigan (1973), taken from In Sheep’s Clothing Hi-fi

In his memoir, Possibilities (2014), Herbie tells the stories that spurred his musical digressions. In the late 60s and early 70s, at a time when Herbie and his band engaged with Black Nationalist ideas of self-discovery and self-determination, Herbie’s music was spontaneous and experimental. Each band member adopted a Swahili name. Herbie became Mwandishi, meaning ‘composer’ or ‘writer’. The group improvised freely, unconcerned with reaching a wide audience. At their peak, their performances were spiritual experiences for the band and the small, captivated crowd.

It felt like the music was playing us, coming down from somewhere above, and we were just the vessels…everything my fingers played was connecting perfectly to everything [they were] playing. As we got deeper into the music we became one big, pulsating creature…

Jerg Illustration

One day, after a rare night of partying through sunrise with his bandmates, a sleep-deprived Herbie could not muster the energy to start the show. He figured Buster Williams — AKA Mchezaji, ‘skilled player’could ease them in with the bass; but then the intro became a 10-minute solo that jerked the band awake. By the end of the night, audience members had tears in their eyes. Herbie demanded an explanation from his bassist, and the answer would change his life: Nichiren Buddhism.

The couple hours that the band had spent sleeping before the show Williams had spent chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, a Buddhist meditation aiming to “fuse your life with the mystic law of cause and effect through sound.” Until now, Herbie had only found spiritual philosophies preaching esoteric ideas, demanding blind faith, and promising little until the afterlife. Buddhism offered a simple practice to empower him as a musician in this world. So Herbie did what Herbie does: he experimented.

As Herbie delved deeper into Buddhist practice and Mwandishi came to a natural end, he discovered a desire to connect to a broader audience. He nurtured inspiration from The Pointer Sisters and Sly & the Family Stone, resisting the “musical elitism” that would have him look down on funk music. In 1973, months after releasing his last Mwandishi record, Herbie released the groove-riddled Head Hunters debut album, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Actual Proof, a song from the second Headhunters album, is named after Nichiren Buddhism’s promise to benefit one’s earthly life.

The Medium

As satisfying as it was to hear Herbie narrate these stories in his audiobook, it was frustrating to never hear his music. Music snippets would’ve expressed much more than descriptions like “gorgeous house of sound” and “river of gorgeous sound”. Instead of working with a ghostwriter to write a book, perhaps Herbie should’ve collaborated with Ken Burns, creator of the Jazz documentary series, to create something more.

To tell the story of jazz music, Burns uses images and sound: narration, interviews, photos, videos, and music. The documentary series looks like a great PowerPoint slideshow. It’s not flashy, but it’s illuminating. The narrator doesn’t have to shower us with adjectives for us to imagine the scene because we can hear it in the music and see it in the photographs. Words tell us what is true, but our senses convince us of it.

In the introduction to his new book, Our America, Ken Burns writes:

I don’t just look at the photograph…I listen to it, as well. Are the troops tramping, the cannons firing, the leaves rustling? Is the bat cracking, the crowd cheering?…it has been my essential responsibility in every film I’ve made to try to animate that moment, to bring it alive.

Like Burns, YouTube video essayists offer us raw material instead of flattening it into words. Thomas Flight’s Why Are David Lynch Movies Like That? is dense with samples of Lynch’s works, and much better for it. His description of Lynch’s worst work as “still [radiating] a unique quality” would be abstract, unclear, if it weren’t spoken over clips from Dune. Dubbing audio over video is so common on YouTube that it’s easy to overlook how well it works. Imagine What Song Are You Listening To? videos without the song snippets: suddenly it would be as awkward to watch as it probably was to record.

Like authors, journalists and essayists insist on writing things the reader needs to see or hear. Pieces like The New Yorker’s recent one on painter Florine Stettheimer lack samples of the visual art they talk about, leaving the reader to collect descriptions of the painter’s style — “feathery, ornamental…faux-naïf, fluorescent” — and try to hold them, as they spill out of mind like water out of cupped hands, until they can look up her paintings. Why work so hard? Is this the writer’s job or the reader’s? The piece leaves a faint impression compared to Affairs of the Art, a short film available on The New Yorker’s YouTube channel: a shiver-inducing yet hilarious piece that combines writing, narration, drawings, sound effects, and music.

This is not to say we abandon writing. But can we compensate for its weaknesses by exploring other formats?

Literary Devices

Decades ago, The New Yorker and other magazines experimented with the journalistic form by introducing literary techniques into it. Writers aspired not just to document scenes but to recreate them for readers to witness. Though some criticized this practice for warping truth through interpretation, some writers flourished in it. Tom Wolfe, a practitioner and evangelist of the method, compiled exemplary articles in his book The New Journalism. He argued that using dialogue, point-of-view, and symbolism helped writers achieve “absolute involvement of the reader”.

The anthology includes a passage from Hunter S. Thompson’s nonfiction novel on the Hell’s Angels, which he wrote after a year of living with the outlaws. Thompson depicts a tense confrontation between the notorious motorcyclists and locals of Bass Lake, a favourite destination for the gang’s Labor Day tradition of binge-drinking and mayhem-making.

“If you play straight with us, Sonny, we’ll play straight with you. We don’t want any trouble and we know you guys have as much right to camp on this lake as anybody else. But the minute you cause trouble for us or anyone else, we’re gonna come down on you hard, it’s gonna be powder valley for your whole gang.”

After his book is published, Thompson confronts a Hell’s Angel before a gleeful crowd.

On the day, Thompson’s newspaper editor requested “no more than an arty variation of the standard wire-service news blurb: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.” But, in his book, Thompson gives us much more. He doesn’t report the events in the cold, detached voice of the typical journalist observing from the sidelines. Nor does he simply list the facts and state the outcome. He recounts, in first person, the experience of being caught in a stand-off between outlaws known for their brutality and a makeshift militia of locals determined to defend their town:

“The first one of these sonsofbitches that gives me any lip I’m gonna shoot right in the belly. That’s the only language they understand.”

The reader leaves not with memorizable facts, but a secondhand experience:

I was standing in the midst of about a hundred vigilantes…as I looked around I saw that many carried wooden clubs and others had hunting knives on their belts. They didn’t seem mean, but they were obviously keyed up and ready to bust some heads…under these circumstances the only neutrals were the tourists, who were easily identifiable. On my way out of town I wondered if anybody in Bass Lake might take one of my aspen-leaf checks for a fluorescent Hawaiian beach suit and some stylish sandals.

Jerg Illustration

New Devices

A modern torchbearer of Thompson’s immersion journalism is comedian-journalist Andrew Callaghan, who roams America in his RV interviewing the country’s kookiest characters and recording their antics. Like Thompson, Callaghan throws himself into the action. With false innocence, he encourages his subjects to rant and reveal their quirks and delusions. In Return to Tallega, Callaghan shows the unhinged debauchery of beer-soaked racing festivals of the American South much like Thompson did with The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. Wolfe compared the techniques of literary realism to electricity in the otherwise mechanical machine of journalism; he might’ve enjoyed seeing Callaghan modernize the practice with literal electricity.

The first half is particularly good. (Don’t take the grabby title too seriously.)

Ironically, the old writing principle show don’t tell can lead us beyond words, as it has The Pudding: a digital publication specializing in ‘visual essays’ developed by ‘Journalist-Engineers’ that write both prose and source code to create their articles. Their piece How Music Taste Evolved, more app than article, lets the user click through pop music history to hear snippets of songs that topped the charts from 1958 until 2016. Instead of forcing you to read about the contrast between the swaying, dreamy sound of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and the youthful pep of Stagger Lee, it lets you hear it. And if you’re not interested in pop music from early 1959, then you can leap forward to whatever decade interests you. The involvement of the reader is literal.

As refreshing as it is, the piece is far from fulfilling its potential. The first improvement is obvious: automatically update every day with the newest song at the top the charts. (The equivalent for printed books, publishing new editions, is pathetic in comparison.) The piece could take its interactivity to the next level by letting you save songs to your music library or dive into specific artists by linking to their Wikipedia articles, which also update with new information and themselves lead to other articles. Or it could browse the internet on your behalf to find live performances and interesting articles, showing new things every time you visit.

Using technology, we can bring information alive and make our interactions with it more meaningful. As Michael Scott puts it:

You don’t go to the science museum and get handed a pamphlet on electricity…you put your hand on a metal ball and your hair sticks up straight. And you know science.

Jerg Illustration

The benefit of combining mediums is clearest in education, where you want to build both analytical and intuitive understanding. A musician trying to teach music theory should think twice about writing a traditional book. Alongside their theoretical explanations, they could offer an interface that lets the user add notes to a music staff and hear what they sound like; or listens to the user play their instrument and transcribes it in real time. A writer passionate about Hemingway’s writing principles and bent on teaching them may feel the urge to write a book; and, although it would educate aspiring writers, it would lack the interactive experience offered by Hemingway App, which shows a writer in real time what rules they are breaching. (To what extent the rules can be codified is a different question.)

As one of the architects responsible for the daring design of the Seattle Central Library said:

Books are technology; that’s something people forget. But it’s a form of technology that will have to share its dominance with any other form of truly potent technology or media.

What if a memoirist publishes a piece overlaid with their revisions to show the process of expression and expose the artifice of memoir? Or what if an English professor does the same to compare writing styles and the emotions they convey? What if a novelist publishes a first-person novel in real time to make it feel like the character really exists and is experiencing events alongside the reader? What if the author then goes back and rewrites previous parts of the novel to show the decay of memory and its corruption in the construction of personal narratives?

Jerg Illustration

Long before the birth of the digital world, writers like Hunter S. Thompson breached conventional forms to create new experiences for readers. And writers can continue to experiment within the book-bound format without intervention from outer disciplines. But they could also work with designers and engineers to create literature’s equivalent to musical technology like synthesizers and drum machines — the tools that Herbie Hancock used to reinvent his art time and time again. If we give artists creative technology, we’ll get back experiences we didn’t even know we were missing.

Thank you so much to Jesse of Jerg Illustration for his drawings. Check out his instagram page jeerg to see more of his work. Also, thank you to my friends and especially to Zyannya and Rosh. Your feedback reshaped and reinforced this piece.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like Feeling Good About Ditching Books.

Notes on style and process — This piece has been the hardest to write so far. The seed of the idea came in early 2021. The tentative title: Making the Internet Surf Itself. Then, in the summer, I listened to Herbie Hancock’s memoir and, while on a long plane ride, drafted an outline for the piece on my phone. Despite my efforts, the piece felt near-dead by Christmas time. It read too much like an outline, or a list of ideas. I was tempted to avert my gaze and scurry away.

The passing of time was discouraging, but also fuelling. I accumulated more references and examples. Reading Gail Sheehy’s memoir and watching Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch introduced me to magazine journalism of the 60s and 70s. I started reading compilations of old articles. I subscribed to the New Yorker. At the same time, I was watching more video essays and Andrew Callaghan’s content on YouTube. All this made the piece more exciting and more challenging to write: Can I weave all these loosely related topics together? Can I incorporate the new ideas with the old ones?

It was daunting and unnerving, but too big to ignore now, over a year in the making. My mental elephant in the room. In the spring of the new year, I decreed Saturday mornings Writing Time. Come summer, I was ready to let it go. It’s been a relief to get it out there, finally clearing the space in my head and my conscience.




I write about software, music, books, psychology, & other topics. Software Engineer at Microsoft in Seattle.