Stephen Duncombe thought he knew what he was going to do with his time off. "It was my sabbatical year, and what you do during a sabbatical year is you sit down and write a book," said Mr. Duncombe, an associate professor of media and culture at New York University. "I had a book planned, and I walked into a bookstore and thought, 'I can't do that.'"
Instead of writing a conventional monograph, he decided to experiment, aiming to move toward "what a book might look like in the future, when it's not just something bound between two covers, and words on a page."
The result of his sabbatical labors has just gone live. Called Open Utopia, it's a free, online version of Thomas More's Utopia that anyone can browse—and annotate. An example of what's sometimes called social reading, Open Utopia builds on the idea that a book doesn't have to be a static text. Online, a book can be a gathering place, a shared space where readers record their reactions and conversations. Those interactions ultimately become part of the book too, a kind of amplified marginalia.
"We live in a world where people can talk back to their books," Mr. Duncombe told me.
More's classic work, published in Latin in 1516, explores what a perfect society might look like. It's been a staple of political philosophy for almost five centuries. A co-founder of the independent Center for Artistic Activism, Mr. Duncombe works with activists on how to use aesthetics to bring people to their cause. A couple of years ago, he traveled to Moscow to teach a Fulbright seminar on the political imagination. To prepare, he revisited Utopia.
"I read a completely different book than I remembered," he said. "I think it's because I was reading it in the context of the failed utopia of the Soviet Union."
That got him thinking about what More was really trying to do. For 500 years, readers have been debating the question "Is More serious or is he not serious?" Mr. Duncombe said. "I think they're missing the point." In his view, More is arguing that "if you want a new world, you're going to have to imagine it yourself."
More's text seemed like a good place to start reimagining. As a starting point, Mr. Duncombe used a free translation available on the Project Gutenberg Web site. He asked colleagues to help translate additional material not already in the public domain. The NYU scholar did fresh footnotes. He used Kickstarter to ask strangers for donations—bringing in about $4,500 to cover Web hosting, design, and other expenses.
Mr. Duncombe published the results online using CommentPress, open-source software by the Institute for the Future of the Book. Online discussion and commenting is made possible by Social Book, a social-reading platform created by the institute. Bob Stein, its founder, has been a vocal proponent of social reading for texts of all lengths. Open Utopia is one of several pilot projects now in progress. Social Book appealed to Mr. Duncombe because it aims to "create communities of people talking to each other."
In addition to serving as editor, sometime translator, and de facto publisher, Mr. Duncombe also did the early technical work himself. "I'm not a technical wiz at all, but I put together the first version of it myself," he told me. "These are tools that are well within the grasp of a literature professor or, in my case, a sociologist."
Does the world really need one more edition of a book that's been steadily available for five centuries? "It takes a bit of audacity to introduce yet another version of Utopia," Mr. Duncombe writes in the introduction to Open Utopia. "Yet I have done so here because what the world does not have, and what I believe it needs, is a complete English-language translation of Utopia that honors the primary precept of Utopia itself—that is, that all property is common property."
In that spirit, Open Utopia is published under a Creative Commons license, "open to read, open to copying, open to modification," the site announces.
Hoping to take the idea of reimagining even further, Mr. Duncombe also created a wiki called Wikitopia, where users can create their own visions of utopia.
It's too early to say whether the masses will take up the invitation. "I love the idea that there's a world out there of people clamoring" for an open, online edition of a 16th-century text, Mr. Duncombe said. "But that's a utopian idea itself."
The approach may play best in the classroom. Tara Gellene, an adjunct professor of English at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, teaches a first-year writing course centered on utopian texts. Her students are using Wikitopia to dream up more-perfect societies.
Open Utopia made its debut too late for Ms. Gellene to assign, but she thinks that the social-reading approach could help solve a recurring challenge. "Keeping the discussion around the text is always a problem, especially with something like Utopia, where people want to have political debates," she told me. With a shared reading platform, "the discussion becomes part of the text," which helps students stay focused.
Another of Social Book's pilot projects took place at the University of Pennsylvania. Kenneth Goldsmith, a poet who teaches in the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, used the platform to have his "Uncreative Writing" class read Roland Barthes's essay "The Death of the Author."
Mr. Goldsmith told the class he expected everyone to comment. They did. The approach "generated enormous discussion," he told me. "Everybody was making comments as they were reading, which was kind of fascinating."
The experiment was almost too big a hit. "We couldn't get through everything," he said. But too much discussion is not a bad problem to have, and Mr. Goldsmith said he plans to use Social Book again.
For Open Utopia, Mr. Duncombe is managing expectations. "In my darker moments, I think maybe I've created a tool for a job that doesn't need to be done, or that may need to be done 10 years from now," he said.
Copyright creates a barrier to social reading's catching on in a big way. Mr. Duncombe had a public-domain text to build on, but many readers want recent material. So far publishers haven't rushed to provide copyrighted works to gather around online.
Even more critical, though, is how sociable readers really want to be. Conversation in the digital margins makes a lot of sense as a way to draw students into reading assignments. Will scholars and other booklovers embrace the idea?
A conventional book invites readers to shut out the world while they read. Social reading asks them to connect with others as they encounter the text. Whether that sounds like a more perfect world depends on the reader.