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Monday, June 5, 2000
Still Hard to Digest, but Digital Books May Have a Future
By Gary Chapman
Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved
It has slowly dawned on me recently, with a feeling of pleasure and gratitude, that we may be in the midst of a new Golden Age of literature. At the same time, the disconnect between the creativity and quality in contemporary writing and the content to be found on the Internet could not be more profound. Will electronic books bridge this gap?
The quality of literature today is better than I can remember, in the works of young writers such as Michael Cunningham, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Arundhati Roy, Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sherman Alexie and Andre Dubus III, as well as older, more established writers, including Sue Miller, Tim O'Brien, Jane Smiley and Russell Banks.
But these writers are essentially invisible in cyberspace, except on the Web sites where customers can purchase their books. For now, good literature and the Internet appear light-years apart.
Many people feel -- and I have been one of them -- that good writing and books are inseparable. Digital technologies seem well-suited for pure information and small packages of cleverness, but the longer and more pleasurable forms of storytelling and narrative seem to require the familiar, old-fashioned book.
"So far, the Internet seems to be largely amplifying the worst features of television's preoccupation with sex and violence, semiliterate chatter, shortened attention spans and near-total subservience to commercial marketing," said Librarian of Congress James Billington in a speech before the National Press Club on April 14.
"There is a difference between turning pages and scrolling down," he said. "There is something about a book that should inspire a certain presumption of reverence."
Like many people, I cherish my books, even though I own far more than I have room to store and I probably haven't looked at the majority of them since I bought them. The idea of an electronic book, with its presumption not of reverence but of impermanence and pure functionality, seems alien and vaguely unsettling.
The publishing industry, on the other hand, seems to disagree. Lately there's been a stampede to get into position for an anticipated new market for electronic books. Random House, Simon & Schuster and Time Warner Books all announced deals with Microsoft a few weeks ago. Esquire magazine has released its latest issue in a digital format that can be read on e-books such as the Rocketbook or Softbook, or on Palm Pilots or Pocket PCs. Some people are even reading novels on their Palm Pilots, downloaded from Peanut Press (http://www.peanutpress.com).
The recent BookExpo America convention in Chicago featured more than 60 digital book vendors, triple the number last year. Everyone in the publishing industry woke up when mega-author Stephen King sold about half a million online copies, at $2.50 each, of his 33-page short story "Riding the Bullet" within 48 hours in March.
Still, the industry has a long way to go to perfect the technology for electronic books. Screen legibility, the biggest complaint until recently, has improved and is no longer a serious obstacle for reading text on a screen. But e-books still need a power source, they need better and faster ways to download online material, and they should be more versatile -- so you don't have to carry both an e-book and a laptop. The material available for e-books needs to expand dramatically.
Writers have tended to be skeptical of electronic books, but that may be changing.
"Writers tend to be Luddites," said Steve Wasserman, book review editor of The Times. He noted how Gore Vidal still writes his novels in longhand, on legal pads, and then has those pages transcribed. Vidal still believes that the tactile feel of a pen in hand is important to the creative process, the way many readers think that the feel of a book and its pages are essential to the appreciation of writing. But Wasserman believes that e-books may expand the choices for readers.
"Books aren't going to go away," he said. "Just as radio continued to exist after TV appeared, books will be with us even after we're all used to e-books. But the role of books may change." Michael Silverblatt, host of the "Bookworm" program on Santa Monica's KCRW radio, said, "Reading is a kind of daily meditation, almost a spiritual ritual. Reading has something to do with at least my long-term memory. If I'm reading a book for a second time, I can tell you what words are about to come up.
"To the extent that electronic books allow us to keep this quality of reading, this kind of meditation, then they'll be very useful." Lawrence Wright, an author and staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, said, "Our experience with technology recently has been that if something doesn't work for consumers, they'll fix that, and quickly.
"I'm interested in finding new ways to write," Wright said. "I'm very interested in the interactive capabilities of digital media and how we can use those capabilities to do interesting new things in writing." He added that one great benefit of e-books to writers is that they can help keep books in print.
Silverblatt added, "Publishing is no friend of great literature. . . . The more serious a book is these days, the less likely it is to be published."
E-books and online distribution may change this, because authors may be able to circumvent publishers the way musicians can now distribute songs on the Internet without a recording contract.
E-books thus seem inevitable. Like MP3 in music, they will shake the publishing industry, change the craft of writing, transform the role and character of paper books and open up new opportunities and problems for talented writers.
"We're living in an age of delirium," Wasserman said. Thus, we're largely unable to sort out the changes the Internet is bringing to culture. As Sarah Bird, a novelist and screenwriter, said, "We're all holding hands and venturing into the future carefully, one step at a time, checking with each other, saying, 'Does this work for you?'"
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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