By Stephan Lee
Updated December 06, 2011 at 08:31 PM EST
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Inception star Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t just a consummate actor-artist himself — he’s inspiring a worldwide community of artists to create together through his online production company hitRECord. The latest spin-off of his collaborative multimedia project is the ingeniously illustrated Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 (It Books), a print collection of works from the website. The title describes the book pretty accurately: Some of the stories inside are witty, some of them are meaningful, but all are very, very brief.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For people who haven’t come into contact with hitRECord yet, explain what it is in your own words.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: It’s an open, collaborative production company. As much as I love acting, I also like telling stories, making little short films, music, art, writing, etc. Normally when an actor starts a production company, it’s sort of an insular, Hollywood thing, but I wanted to collaborate with all of these artists all over the world who are making beautiful art and don’t necessarily have the connections to work in Hollywood. That’s why we use the Internet and we put these projects that we do online, and anybody can contribute to them. I’m there directing, participating, curating, and editing, and we make things together. “Tiny Stories” is our most popular collaboration that we’ve ever had. It’s really easy to contribute to it. As it says on the back on the book, we had 8,000 contributions that came into this collaboration. From that we edited it down into this tiny book.

How did you narrow all of those submissions down into this book?

Well, it takes a long time. It’s a gradual process. First of all, it’s not just me. There’s a community of almost 70,000 artists that come to our website, and they do a lot of the curating, too. The thing about hitRECord is, it’s collaborative and it’s all about remix, and it’s not so much about ownership, so a lot of the stories and illustrations that you see don’t just come from one person. Someone will write a story, someone will revise that story, and then someone else might draw a picture, and someone else might take one element from that picture and draw another picture. Lots of people come together and are constantly building on each other’s work. So the website sort of tracks all that so you can see which stories and which illustrations are really resonating with the community. They pop out. So I will admit, I certainly did not look at all 8,000 contributions to this collaboration.

You do give credit where credit’s due.

Yes. And those people do share in the profits of this book.

So you already have this very lively online world going on. What is it about a bound book that adds to the reading and viewing experience?

Look, I love wandering around the Internet and finding things to look at and entertain me, but there’s absolutely no comparison to holding a well-published book in your hands. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s just nothing like it. I’m really proud of the way that we are publishing this book. It’s a beautiful, tactile, physical artifact, and I think there’s something sort of magical about that. I get the biggest kick out of taking these things that started so digitally — they had to be digital because they came from all over the world and we used the Internet to make it — but then it comes together into this tangible, physical relic, and it feels sooooo … official. [Laughs] Well, this is a real book, you know? I love seeing stuff that I’ve made posted online that people can react to, but man, when it’s printed in a hardcover, clothbound book — the cover is this deep beautiful red and the lines that make up the cover illustration are embossed on there and you can feel it with your fingers — there’s nothing like that to me. It really lends a magnitude to the stories.

I read the whole thing cover to cover and enjoyed it, but it doesn’t have to be read in any kind of order. I know it’s up to the reader, but how do you imagine people engaging with this book?

That’s a good question, and I agree that it’s up to the reader. When you have a novel, there’s only one thing you can do with it. You have to read it from beginning to end, so you can only pick it up when you have an hour to sit somewhere quiet and concentrate. But a book like this becomes something much more diverse in its possibilities. We spent a lot of time of working out a shape and an arc for the book from beginning to end so it has a nice feel and a rhythm to it if you do just read the whole thing in one sitting. But I also think it’s a perfect thing to have somewhere in your house on a table or a shelf somewhere, and you can pick it up even just to admire it as an object. Even without opening it, I think there’s something really pleasing about it.

Then you crack it open to any random page, and you’ll be able to read one of its stories in 15 seconds, and each of the stories is, I think, a complete story. So even if you only spend less than a minute looking at it, you can come away with a quick story that has a point to it and often has an underlying message or moral. That’s the challenge of writing these things: How can you tell an entire story in the briefest of terms? That was a big part of my personal criteria of which stories I wanted to include. There were lots of little bits that were great but didn’t feel like whole stories. They felt like little fragments, or someone would put a joke, for example. The point isn’t just that it’s tiny, it’s a tiny story. When I say the word “story,” that means that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has something to hang your hat on. It means something. I love stuff like that, whether it’s a zen poem or a Dr. Seuss poem.

And every word has to count. I couldn’t help but think about New Yorker cartoons.

Thank you! That’s a wonderful compliment.

It seems the words and pictures absolutely have to be together.

Yeah. We tried to make it so that the text and the illustration are both necessary components of the story. So if you just read the words by themselves, it might not do as much, or if you just saw the picture by itself, it might not do as much. You need them both to really get the whole story. The exercise is just how economic can you be? There’s no redundancy, there’s no fat on it.

What are some of your favorite bits from the book?

The Tiny Stories tend to end up in two broad camps: Some of them have a real button, like a punch line. Like, for example, “the Doctor’s Wife ate two apples a day, just to be safe. But her husband kept coming home.” That one’s got a bit of a zinger at the end, and I love those, and the illustration that goes with that one is particularly well done. There’s such a story in her facial expression and her posture. It’s like great acting to me. Then there are other ones that don’t have such a zinger at the end, but I feel like they’re a little more whimsical. They invite the reader to bring what meaning he or she chooses. You just get into really beautiful aesthetics of the words and the images. There’s one that goes, “I collect flickering stars in old pickling jars, poking holes in the lids so they can breathe.” I love those words. They’re fun off the tongue and evokes so many images. Are we talking about a little kid who’s collecting fireflies, or are we talking some god of the night sky? What exactly is going on is up to interpretation, and I feel it’s so rich.

The drawing that goes with that particular story is so great.

That’s actually a cool story to bring up in terms of the HitRECord process. That illustration is a combination of several elements. It’s the work of several graphic artists putting things together and finding ways to remix each other’s work into this beautiful new story, and I think when you look at it now, it seems like it’s meant to be. I love the creative process like that. That’s what life is. You go through life and you take these different elements that are coming at you, and you don’t understand why they are or what they’re doing there, but it’s up to you to be creative and match the elements together.

I think the composite nature of the art gives it a bit of mystery. It makes the reader wonder, “How did this unusual drawing end up this way?

Exactly! It’s sort of like evolution. Nature itself is such a beautiful thing whether you’re talking about jungles or the human body or whatever. It’s something that can only naturally evolve over time; things come together in unexpected ways and all of a sudden you have a product that’s still in evolution, but it makes sense for what is in that moment. It makes more sense in its absurdity than it would have if it were created by just one person, one designer.