The Magnet 37: Boy in the Book

A choose-your-own-documentary online game


The Boy in the Book

The Cave of Time was the first “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel. It was published in 1979 and began like this:

You've hiked through Snake Canyon once before while visiting your Uncle Howard at Red Creek Ranch, but you never noticed any cave entrance. It looks as though a recent rock slide has uncovered it.

Though the late afternoon sun is striking the opening of the cave, the interior remains in total darkness. You step inside a few feet, trying to get an idea of how big it is. As your eyes become used to the dark, you see what looks like a tunnel ahead, dimly lit by some kind of phosphorescent material on its walls. The tunnel walls are smooth, as if they were shaped by running water. After twenty feet or so, the tunnel curves. You wonder where it leads. You venture in a bit further, but you feel nervous being alone in such a strange place. You turn and hurry out.

A thunderstorm may be coming, judging by how dark it looks outside. Suddenly you realize the sun has long since set, and the landscape is lit only by the pale light of the full moon. You must have fallen asleep and woken up hours later. But then you remember something even more strange. Just last evening, the moon was only a slim crescent in the sky.

You wonder how long you've been in the cave. You are not hungry. You don't feel you have been sleeping. You wonder whether to try to walk back home by moonlight or whether to wait for dawn, rather than risk losing your footing on the steep and rocky trail.

If you decide to start back home, turn to page 4.

If you decide to wait, turn to page 5.

What do you want to do? That’s the fun of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” (CYOA) books. Each of the hundreds of titles published has dozens of different endings. How you arrive at a particular ending depends on your choices at the end of each section.

The CYOA series was hugely popular. Sales reached 250 million copies in the United States, and the books were translated into over 30 languages. The series was created by Edward Packard, who wrote over 50 CYOA books. Packard came up with the idea for the CYOA format while telling bedtime stories to his children.

This week, I played an online game created by Nathan Penlington called The Boy in the Book, based on the CYOA books.

The game starts with a video interview with Penlington. He says he loved the CYOA books as a child, and his obsession for the books returned when he was an adult. He bought a collection of 106 CYOA books on eBay, and in the copy of The Cave of Time Penlington found four pages of a diary written over 20 years ago. “It clearly belonged to one really sad kid,” says Penlington. Penlington says he wants to find out about the kid and what happened to him.

After the video plays, you are presented with a “chat session” with Penlington. It looks like this:

I clicked “What does the diary say?” Here’s Penlington’s response:

After chatting with Penlington for a while, another video shows that Penlington’s friends — Fernando, Sam, and Nick — agree to make a documentary about Penlington’s search for the boy in the book.

The next chapter (there are 10 chapters in all, and each chapter takes between 10-15 minutes to play) starts with a chat session with you, Fernando, Sam, and Nick in which you speculate on whether or not Penlington is playing a prank on everyone:

We learn also learn why Penlington considers the CYOA series to be the greatest experimental writing project ever:

Choose Your Own Adventure books neatly illustrate that life is a tangle of possibility. They allow you to see that situations might be out of your control, but at some point in the future, your story will turn a corner, and up ahead are possibilities you haven’t even begun to imagine. That’s powerful stuff for an eight-year-old.

Penlington says his favorite novel in the series is Hyperspace:

Hyperspace stars one of Packard’s recurring characters, Dr. Nera Vivaldi. In the novel, Vivaldi admits to being a fictional character and Edward Packer himself appears as a character.

This chapter also allows you to watch some videos Penlington has made about CYOA books — “Absurd Deaths” and “Crazy Spin-offs”

The chapter includes a video visit to Penlington’s family garage, loaded with magic props, old magazines, Penlington’s diary, a unicycle with an orange tire, and a guillotine. All of this helps convince Penlington’s friends that he isn’t making any of this up. He really is obsessed with certain things, and the CYOA series in particular.

The chapter concludes with a revelation — one of the books has the boy’s address penciled in.

The adventure continues in the eight chapters that follow, as the documentary crew (and you) piece together clues in an attempt to track down the boy in the box. If you have a spare couple of hours, I highly recommend spending them playing this meta-CYOA experience.

Is it a true story? That’s for you to choose.

AI writing assistant


I received an invitation to try out the beta version of Sudowrite, an AI-powered writing assistant that uses OpenAI’s GPT-3 neural network to auto-generate text. To use it, you type a paragraph or two of text into it, and then click a button marked "Wormhole." The AI generates a couple of possible adds for your text. It reminds me of a choose your own adventure game. I decided to try it out by giving it the beginning of The Cave of Time, from the Choose Your Own Adventure book by Edward Packer.

Here are some of the responses:

You decide to wait. The ground is far too rough to sleep comfortably, so you sit down to wait. The moon, the surrounding hills and the distant mountains all seem brighter now, as if the moon has grown brighter, too. A bright glow fills the cave entrance, and your immediate surroundings beyond that. You stare at the bright disc and wonder if the moon is suddenly much larger than even just a few minutes ago. As you continue to stare, something odd happens. The circle of light begins to bow inwards and contract. The moon becomes brighter and brighter, as if it were approaching. The light moves even closer and grows more intense. You feel heavy on the ground, as if gravity were increasing. The moon circles around you, then pauses an arm's length away from you. You feel several heavy thumps against your head. You hear your bones crack and your blood spurt. You feel pain as you tumble to the ground. 


You decide to sit down on a rock in the shade and wait for first light. You were sitting there for hours, hypnotized by the play of moonlight on the canyon walls, when you feel a sudden pressure on your scalp. You look up and see a man in a black hooded robe standing above you. Then you realize you are not sitting on a rock — in fact, you are not even sitting up. You are lying on your back. You try to move, but your body does not respond. The man is right above you, shining a torchlight into your eyes to make sure you are asleep. He gets out a pair of scissors and a kind of metal fork with teeth on it and begins to cut your hair. He cuts the hair all around your head — down to the roots. When he is finished, he gathers up the shears and the metal fork and puts them away in his robe. 

Sudowrite seems like a great way to help you write CYOA books. I’m not sure it is a great tool for writing novels or short stories though, especially if you are the kind of writer who likes to plant things in advance.

I suspect a lot of writers will use AI writing assistants like Sudowrite for things like marketing copy. For example, I used the technobabble description of the mythical Turboencabulator as a prompt, and Sudowrite spit out a pitch-perfect addition:

The trotter gyrator now plays an important part in the scheme of things. The principle of this most useful instrument is very simple. The ordinary gyratory action obtained with the usual sliding vacuum pump is drastically modified and the resultant force is oriented to give a perfect rotary electrical field whenever the moving hyperboloid is in a plane containing the fore-perpindiculars of the dynamometer.

That’s how we came to invent the alimentary oscillabubble. The basic idea was to build a vessel where the characteristic vibrations of the liquescent medium could be transmitted with negligible loss and one that could be compactly constructed.

The key problem had to do with the actual synchronizing of the hyperboloid and the fan, eliminating the disadvantages of the usual arrangement.

Another of the main contributions of our great genius was his invention of the cyanoscillator, which he called a “pivon.”

Stephen Marche of The New Yorker recently took Sudowrite for a test drive and after seeing what it could do, wrote “Very soon, when you read a text you will not be able to assume a person intended or wrote that language.”


15 tips for people who cook

Jenny Rosenstrach “15 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Cooking” has good advice for beginning and experienced cooks. Here are a few I especially appreciated:

3. Some Type-A behaviors worth stealing: Do everything you can in advance when you are having people over for dinner. No matter how easy and tossed-off the task may be. No matter how many times your partner-in-crime says, Why don’t we just do that later? Filling the water pitcher takes 15 seconds! If you forgo this advice and do nothing in advance, at least make sure you start off the evening with an empty dishwasher. You will thank yourself a few hours and a few cocktails later when staring at the mountain of greasy plates in the sink. Lastly, if at all possible, go to sleep with a fresh trash bag in the kitchen garbage can. I find it somewhat soul-crushing to see last night’s dinner scraps piled up before I’ve had my morning coffee. And I sleep better when I know it’s empty. (See: Type A.)

6. Add acid. A drizzle of vinegar, a spoonful of tangy buttermilk or plain yogurt, a simple squeeze of lemon or lime will always add brightness to an otherwise boring and flat dish.

13. Salt the water. I told my husband this should be the title of his memoir. Any time I’m the one charged with making the pasta or farro or vegetables, he checks and double checks and triple checks “Did you salt the water?” As, um, charming as this line of questioning is, the motivation behind it is legit — food tastes so much better when it’s properly seasoned. This is especially true of pasta water, which should taste as salty as the sea.


The Magnet mascot shirts

I’m selling Magnet mascot shirts in various styles. To keep the shirts mysterious, there are no other markings on them other than the mascot image.

Thanks for reading! The Magnet is written by Mark Frauenfelder.