A Week in Books: The advent of the e-book
Friday 27 February 2004
I like books. Thanks, by the way, Ken, for your efforts to Get London Reading - those helpful posters on the Tube, even the electronic display at Canary Wharf DLR station this morning - but I liked them already. I like reading them, of course, but I also like touching them. I like flicking the pages, the smoothness of paper on skin, the smell of a glossy new one and the battered cosiness of an old one. I like bending back spines and wreaking havoc with a pen.
The advent of the e-book - where you download and read your favourite titles on a paperback-sized display screen - may put an end to all that. At worst, it could wipe out an entire industry; at best, it could mean re-defining every aspect of the publishing process and dragging it into the Looking Glass morass of copyright in cyberspace. It could be a swift, and not necessarily bloodless, revolution. The internet conquered the world in the space of a few years, and now we can't imagine life without it.
We don't, however - as predicted in my childhood - wear shiny silver spacesuits or take our nourishment in easy-to-swallow pills. We still like cotton, denim, viscose and silk, scallops, lamb shanks and Big Macs. There's already, in short, a fine tradition of old and new technologies rubbing along together. The video did not signal the demise of the cinema, which did not signal the demise of the theatre. Perhaps, as the e-book takes the world by storm, its cumbersome physical ancestor will become the province of the elite, like a box at the opera or a Damien Hirst spot painting on the wall of your loft apartment.
It is largely a question of medium over matter, of style over substance. Most writing, whether on a screen, a page or a billboard, conforms to the traditional, linear laws of narrative. The surprise is that most writing on the internet does, too. Faced with an unprecedented artistic challenge - a polygamous multi-media marriage of dancing graphics, flickering images, text and sound - most writers mutter a swift "no thanks" and move away from the bright lights and noise into a quiet corner. They're not interested in artistic challenges, but in the head-spinning possibilities of an anarchic utopia with no censorship, no snooty rejection slips from publishers and a potential audience of millions.
There are, thank God, some writers who see the internet as something more than a vast karaoke club in the sky. They've seen the future and it isn't orange, but multicoloured, digitally enhanced, polyphonic and interactive. They are shaping a new art form and you don't get to do that every day. The results so far are pretty mixed. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, and even then he's usually wearing a black polo-neck and John Lennon glasses. He's often the kind of guy who hangs out in the ICA bar, spouting Barthes or Derrida or Chomsky. He's keen on postmodern playfulness but does not necessarily have a GSOH. He may be great at graphics, but not quite such a whizz at words.
Much of this work is boring, banal and pretentious. A tiny proportion of it is entrancing: a hypnotic mix of image, sound and dancing text that takes you to a place you may not have been to before. In her essay "The [+] Net [+] of Desire", the new media writer Sue Thomas refers to Andrew Marvell's poem "The Garden". "No matter," she says, "whether it occurs beneath the heavy branches of a laden peach tree, or out in the swirling mindmelds of cyberspace, it is the same process in which imagination and reality bring us together to create and enjoy new shared realities." Thomas is the director of the trAce online writing community, (www.trace.ntu.ac.uk), which offers courses and resources for budding digerati. Look out here for glimpses of "Far other Worlds, and other Seas". We're going to see many more of them.
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