04 July 2006

digerati & literati

I recently came across a slightly snarky column by Alex Beam in the Boston Globe that won't simplify the conversations we've been having lately about podcasts, audiobooks, and John Updike's clearly provocative (if belligerently ignorant) lament of the continuing McDonaldization of the book world and critique of many things digital.

The article, entitled "The Brave New Book," mentions the Updike essay that we touched on here and discusses the (second) coming of the electronic book. Rather than summarizing Beam, I thought it might be fruitful to quote a few of his most salient paragraphs, and then raise a few questions of my own about them in particular and the possibilities inherent in the cyber-beyond (especially for innovative and/or alternative prose) in general:

Who can forget the hype attending "electronic readers" like the $600 SoftBook and the $1,500 EB Dedicated Reader, which were going to make paper-and-paste books obsolete? The chief executive of SoftBook called his product a "booklike experience," perhaps one of the great euphemisms of the digital age.

Now the e-book may have a second shot. Sony has shown geeks its forthcoming Reader, which looks a lot like the old SoftBook but supposedly uses improved, Reader-friendly "e-ink," developed by Cambridge's E Ink Corp. In a grandiose public relations flourish, e-book e-vangelists Project Gutenberg and World eBook Fair plan to "publish," or make available for download, 300,000 free e-books starting July 4.

The new hype differs from the old hype. Everyone acknowledges that the boxy readers like SoftBook bombed. Now the e-bookies insist the Game Boy generation wants to read books on their tiny iPod or cellphone screens. "You wouldn't believe how many people read books on their PDAs [personal digital assistants]," says Gutenberg founder Michael Hart. OK, how many? He has no idea.

. . .

As it happens, the e-book is the solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Check out my Personalized Literacy Unit, a 2003 release from the Bantam Dell labs. It's an $8 paperback called Persuader by Lee Child, and it weighs the same as my stripped-down cellphone and less than my Palm Pilot. (A friend's reaction upon learning that I carry a Pilot: "How 1997!") I've used my PLU on an airplane, in the car, and in a few other places where you wouldn't take electronic equipment.

I am giving the last word on this subject to Cambridge's director of libraries, Susan Flannery. Instead of theorizing about libraries and the future of the book, Flannery and her board are building a new, $60 million main branch to provide state-of-the-art library services for the next 20 years. Barely a mile from Flannery's office, Google is scanning the books in Harvard's libraries for eventual inclusion in Kevin Kelly's "liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas."

. . .

Flannery calls herself "a big fan of the printed book" who now does more "reading" of audio books on her iPod than between hard covers. "I am part of a transitional generation," she says. What about digital books? "I would think the reference collections would be target number one for being replaced by electronic sources. We are prepared to reduce their shelf space accordingly."

But some publishing trends favor print, she notes. "Graphic novels are a whole new publishing area that is purely print. They're very popular, and the category seems to be growing. I don't think electronics will replace children's books—their visual beauty won't translate to the screen, and parents want the kids sitting on their lap."

I find myself left, not with answers, but with questions—including several perhaps painfully obvious ones, like who in the world still considers graphic novels "a whole new publishing area" or conceives of the act of listening to an audiobook as "reading"?:

1. The book has been and done various things at various times in various places in various ways. Five thousand years ago, for instance, baked clay tablets in Mesopotamia recorded deeds to land and other business records. Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans used the inner bark of the papyrus plant to fashion their books, pasting sheets together in strips sometimes 144 feet long. The codex, made up of several sheets of vellum, existed for centuries after its appearance in 300 AD. Is the movement toward the e-book (if not now, then in the not-too-distant future), given certain economic and environmental necessities, simply an inevitable change in what an information package looks like, and, if so, what's the big deal? Or is it is something else altogether—a loss, a supplement?

2. E-books and audiobooks (especially iPod-friendly ones) will, at least theoretically, make fiction, innovative and otherwise, more accessible—much like the World Wide Web has allegedly done. But if anyone can, and anyone does, "publish" via podcasts and the Web, if "publish" is indeed the word I’m looking for here, where will the quality of publication go—whatever we may mean by quality? Or, to put it another way, as I did in an earlier comment: does anyone really want to know what everyone thinks about anything?

3. What will become, in other words, of the idea of literary value—however we might define such a dicey term? How will we discover it among the sea of linguistic dross, should we wish to? And, should we not, what precisely are we reading for in the first place?

4. Ten years ago, writers like John Perry Barlow used the energetic metaphor of the wild west for what was going on on the Web, where all fences were down, and one road as good as another. Now, though, a more apt metaphor seems to be the Mall of America, and, quite possibly, the advent of the Web has signaled little more than the beginning of a new technocracy that ultimately discriminates between computer-haves and computer-havenots, techophiles and technophobes. What possibilities still exist there for innovative fiction?

5. What aesthetic forms, innovative and otherwise, lend themselves to digital space?

6. What zones of resistance and refusal continue to exist in digital media like the Web, and can we imagine a way to keep them from becoming coopted in, say, another five years? In another ten?

7. Is the Web in fact the new worldwide cafĂ© that early media hype proclaimed it to be, a new global meeting ground for, among others, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the alternativized—aesthetically, socially, politically? Or is it merely the commodified simulation of community populated by isolated aliases uncomfortable about interfacing one-to-one in what some geeks refer to as The Big Television—namely, the real world? Where, that is, is the body going? Where has it gone?

8. What are we to think of RAND Corporation senior computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg’s assertion that “the contents of most digital media evaporate long before words written on high-quality paper. And they often become unusably obsolete even sooner, as media are superseded by new, incompatible formats . . .”? How will the longevity of the digitized book, digitized space, affect how we think about enduring art and the cultural clichĂ© of the "timeless masterpiece"?

9. Back, for a moment, to pedagogy: will education become more interactive, I wonder, and hence more captivating for students, bringing them back to the acts of reading and writing with renewed vigor through the advent of, say, email’s and text messaging's immediacy and the dynamic experience of hypertextual interconnectivity offered by the meta-book called the Web? Or will education become increasingly a simulation of itself through distance learning programs that make good economic sense only by extracting genuine human connection and genuine Socratic inquiry from the learning experience? Will education become, in other words, simply one more version of commodified television with its MTV-ized rhythms, surfaces, and shine—more and more fiscally justified form, and less and less reflective, historically situated, and humanely interactive content?

10. Please don't get me wrong. I apologize in advance if these questions seem too deliberately and predictably shrill by half. But I think their tone, which houses something like urgency in my mind, simply underscores how interested I am in what's going on in the digital realm, how much of what I see vexes me, what the possibilities are for tribes like ours. I've collaborated on the hypermedia version of my novel 10:01, teamed up with Ted Pelton to form this blog, urged us to explore the potential of the podcast, and headbangingly adore a number of electronic texts from Michael Joyce's still glorious afternoon: a story and Shelley Jackson's brilliant My Body (another wonderful unwriting of the Frankenstein myth, by the way), to Stuart Moulthrop's Reagan Library and ongoing experiments at The Iowa Review Web. But I'm also impressed, given how long said realm has been around, and given how many people have been involved in its workings, how few really fascinating pieces of writing it has produced and how so much of it functions as little more than another site for teaching us to desire more things we don't have and don't want. Why?