Read Part 1.
By Naomi Bock
Most people's familiarity with "interactive fiction" is limited to the Choose Your Own Adventure young adult imprint of 1979-97. Readers won't have to flip through page numbers anymore, for the series is being re-released in "gamebook" form by Chooseco,a venture founded by the original print series' main author M.A. Montgomery.
As video games themselves become ever more sophisticated, some cultural academics think they are set to change the literary landscape. Greg Niemeyer, Professor of art, technology, and cultureat the University of California, Berkeley, says "narratives delivered by player action" will only become more common.
"The future of the book is the game," he claims.
But some writers and readers protest cluttering novels with digital gimmicks, insisting the classic reading experience provides unique opportunities for imaginative response.
"In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can't lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head," Ursula Le Guin writes in her Harpers'essay. "To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it—everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not ‘interactive,' with a set of rules or options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer's mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it."
Not that Le Guin is completely adverse to the digital age. She maintains a website,and she responded to questions for this article via email. She says she sees the value in an online literary community even if she herself doesn't blog—she'd rather get more books written. "At 78, I don't have the time—literally" she explains. She allows that "e-books have their uses," but she is keen to promote print-on-demandtechnology, which could eventually see ATM-like kiosksdispensing books hot off the press, eliminating the need for print-run guesswork and pulped remainders. She advocates this solution because, as she states in her essay, she believes "the future of civilization depends on the bound book."
The future of Bill Petrocelli's independent bookstore business certainly depends on it, he says. Since his wife Elaine founded their first of two Book Passage stores 30 years ago, they've faced increasing competition with large chain operations—and now their online incarnations—for tiny profit margins. "It doesn't seem to be a lucrative business even for the big guys," he chuckles. "It's required a tremendous amount of energy, and being nimble."
Petrocelli says they've managed to survive while other bookshops shutter because they've become a community center of sorts, a hubbub of literary activity that includes writing workshops, book clubs, language classes, and their ever-popular author signings. Even if readers are buying more books online nowadays, they're still lining up to meet the storytellers they love. "People want to press the flesh," he explains. "The bookstore has evolved into a place where you interact."
Both Book Passage stores are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, a perennial book tour stop. For bookstores off the beaten trail—as well as authors overstretched by touring demands—the future of the book signing offers hope. Novelist Margaret Atwood's Long Pensystem provides one-on-one facetime as well as personal inscriptions, all accomplished remotely using video conferencing and a robotic pen that replicates the movements of the author's hand on a tablet. Borders installed a unit in its new Ann Arbor, Michigan, megastore, linking up with authors elsewhere on their tours.
Authors may not be able to sign e-books (yet), but the web provides many ways to connect with faraway readers, and some say e-publishing could one day expand an author's readership base far beyond the scope of both book tours and the printed press. Theo Armor, the book collector turned e-reader enthusiast, says as developing countries get wired, access to digital libraries could boost literacy.
"We're cutting down forests so middle-class people in the West can read," he says. "What about the little kid in the third world? This might be the only way they're going to get to read most books."
Back in 1971, with only a faint vision of what networked computing might become, Michael Hart founded Project Gutenberg, transcribing public-domain text to invent the (fre)e-book (and the first spam—he tried sending the Declaration of Independence to everyone on the primordial ‘Net). Today, the digitizing effort includes iBiblio, The Open Library, Google Book Search,and some very fancy scanners, resulting in hundreds of thousands of classics freely accessible on the web. Many more books still under copyright are also available for paid download, as well as indexed searches that reveal only the relevant paragraph or page as permission warrants.
Keeping a publisher's out-of-print backlist available digitally, whether to be sold as e-books or printed on demand, is something Ursula Le Guin endorses.
"I think it's a grand idea, and the way to go—so long as the principle of copyright gets maintained; and that's quite a can of worms, on the Web."
Many authors, agents, and publishers worry that if e-books become mainstream, digital pirates will plunder profits. Currently, digital rights management (DRM) restrictions mean purchased e-books can only be installed on one device. Jeff Gomez actually advocates DRM-free e-book files, saying people prefer to pay a little more for the ability to read a book on all of their devices. He notes that the music industry is beginning to adopt this model, with profits remaining strong. He says the biggest risk to publishing is not e-pirates, but its refusal to set sail into the digital sea itself.
"[I]f it doesn't, then people won't only turn away from books, but they'll also turn away from the stories and ideas found inside books."
No matter what the longer-term future holds for the book, paper and pixel will continue to co-exist for now.
"It's the last information system to be completely overwhelmed by the computer," says Bill Petrocelli, pointing out that movie and music formats have come and gone while print remains. He thinks some books are actually more appropriate for web delivery-tax filing how-to manuals, for example-whereas he can't see books for young children ever leaving the physically printed realm. "Kids just love the touch and feel."
Little Sophia Schlag would seem to concur, excitedly tearing the dust jacket off a book her mother Alicia is trying to read. Plopped down in front of her own books, the one-year-old flips merrily through their sturdy cardboard pages, stacking them around herself like a fortress.
"Oh, she loves books all right," smiles Alicia. "She's got that whole container full of toys, but she almost always goes for the books."
Mother's statement proves correct; Sophia refuses to be lured away by various whirling and animal-sound-making doodads. But when a laptop appears, she kicks her books out of the way to get at it, showing herself to be as much a novelty-seeking creature as the rest of her species. This baby bibliophile may yet be oblivious to the question of the future of the book, but she is growing up in a world where the answers may be ever more novel indeed.
–Naomi Bock is a writer and filmmaker working on her first novel, which she plans as both a printed book and a web-based multimedia project.