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The Independent Culture
N MY first attempt to read Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums was curtailed, if I remember correctly - and I probably don't, since we humans are not cursed with read-only memories - by an older teenager, who plucked the book from my hands and posted it in an adjacent pillar box. Such was the prevailing concept of cool. It was a Zen thing.

Kerouac's insistence that the juvenile is cosmic has an enduring appeal for a certain strain of Western youth. His niche in popular culture has been secure for almost 40 years, and it will stay that way so long as there are teenagers as we know them. Were it otherwise, Penguin US wouldn't have chosen him as the subject of a CD "ROMnibus". The received wisdom in the industry is that the multimedia market is driven by the young. To minimise risk, publishers reason, you should pitch your product at 17-year-olds. The stakes are raised by the massive cost of developing CD-ROMs, which doesn't encourage a Beat approach to business. Come to that, popping a pounds 50 CD into a letterbox these days would probably lead to an exchange of gunfire.

The ROMnibus opens with a montage of pastel images, setting a scrupulously tasteful visual tone that is sustained throughout. A little video clip, the current state of the art providing a rare but entirely apt touch of graininess, shows the author talking about his work. A click on the Penguin logo - you get a feel for how these things are arranged - opens a menu page. Right at the centre is an icon of a scroll labelled "The Dharma Bums", a reminder that Kerouac was nothing if not a linear writer. What would an author who typed on rolls of telegraph paper have made of hypertext, the system of links between texts on which the new media are based?

Applied to the text of The Dharma Bums, hyperlinks are a superior form of the annotations that fill the margins of school set books. You click on a highlighted phrase, and a window containing a note opens. Exit to the contents page, and you are presented with a range of further contextual options: Kerouac's life and times, reproductions of letters and pages from his notebooks, spoken extracts from his writings, an area devoted to the Beat movement. And omnipresent on every page is an image of the Buddha. It's the "help" icon.

A colleague who also looked at the disk commented that it encouraged one to do everything except read. That's true, but it is not necessarily a criticism. From the hyperlinked text of The Dharma Bums outwards, the ROMnibus is a vehicle for delivering context. You will choose the printed version of the book if you want to read it, the electronic one if you want to refer to it. The best way to think of the ROMnibus is as a pocket- sized museum.

Personally, I was sold when I entered the area devoted to Kerouac's circle. It opens with a chart of boxes bearing the names of individuals, with lines between them. A key offers a range of options, allowing one to see, at the click of a mouse, who influenced whom, who published whom and who had affairs with whom.

Unfortunately, when I clicked on the box labelled Lew Welch, the computer crashed, and I haven't been able to persuade it to open the ROMnibus's exquisite icons since. Either I've loaded Lew Welch's ghost into my machine, or the ROMnibus is a reincarnation of the paperback snatched from my adolescent clutches. Guess my karma just isn't going to let me read that book.

A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus, Penguin Books USA pounds 49.99.