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The New Companions of the Book
by Samuel Archibald, translated by Alajandra Sánchez
We are faced today with a new commonplace: books and
the written word are exposed to radical transformations and find themselves
at a turning point; some even say they might disappear. The Alarmed are reciting
funeral Masses while the Enthusiasts are getting ready to break open the champagne.
In order to avoid this rather tedious debate between discourses which are
basically opposed but equally vaguely hysterical, we must consider two essential
questions entailed by the existence of books in the digital era. First: is the
book as a technological object destined to undergo a mutation? Second: what
happens when content that is traditionally associated with books migrates to
another medium? To borrow from computer terminology, the issue is one of hardware
Towards an Electronic Book: Gutenberg in Pixel-land
Everywhere on the Web we find copyright-free texts, and
ever since Douglas Cooper first published the episodes of his novel Delirium
online in 1994, many authors have tried their hand at electronic publishing.
The Web started out as a great tool for self-publishing with minimal costs.
Now it is progressively acquiring an editorial structure and online publishers
are emerging. In France, for instance, 00h00 offers all of its titles in a digital
or print version, while Canada's Coach House Press publishes online titles in
addition to printed texts and books which play with the concept of the book
In Québec, Hervé Fischer offered for free on his Web site the "book" Mythanalyse
du futur. Fischer relates this experience in another text - on printed
paper this time - published under the title The Digital Shock (Le choc du numérique).
Here he underlines the fundamental problem with online publishing: the absence
of an adequate reading support. The text circulates, but how can we read it?
The computer screen, with its eye-straining luminosity and its manipulable and
dynamic aspect, cannot be read for a long, composed, and static period of time.
We are often driven to print out the text. This, in addition to providing a
rather unattractive version of the text, costs much more than it looks, given
the price of ink cartridges for printers. Hence, computers and cd-roms are less
effective as reading supports than as stocking and consultation devices and
The eBook aims at joining the best of both worlds: the portability and ease-of-reading
of a printed book with the inherent advantages of an electronic support. Those
aspects that allow the eBook to occupy a real place in our reading practices
are also those that make it an object different from the printed book: it is
electric and it presents digital content. Note the old adage, verba volant,
scripta manent - spoken words vanish into thin air, written ones remain. But
digitally written words change: electronic matter is characterized by its ability
Printed books and eBooks should then be seen as companions
rather than as opponents. It is much more interesting to see text transforming
itself as it drifts between two shapes than to ask oneself who will win the
eventual battle of hardware. It is precisely the idea of a support taking over
for another that most hinders the development of electronic creation. Strict
digital imitation of the book ignores the dynamic character of new media, and
misses opportunities to play on the screen with colour, shape, and texture:
it only recreates the reassuring surface of the printed page, which is more
or less useless on the creative level. Faced with this technological development,
the shape of the book reaches its limits. It is difficult to be satisfied merely
with images and text when increasingly accessible multimedia software is making
it possible to include more sophisticated interactivity, animated sequences,
and sound elements.
Towards an Electronic Literature: James Joyce Gets a
Obviously, where there is text there can be
literature. Nevertheless, to exist in full, electronic literature has to shape
itself according to the specificities of its support. Let us consider some examples.
Ever since afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce first appeared in 1990, hundreds
of authors from all over the world have attempted to write fictional hypertexts.
Among them, Tim McLaughlin of Vancouver has published the excellent Notes
Toward Absolute Zero, in which the reader can explore the fate of three
different characters across various fragments, postcards, and stamps. The work's
American online publisher, Eastgate Systems, specializes in hypertexts.
Fiction hypertexts are available online and on cd-rom. Their basic principle is simple: to subject
old forms (i.e., novels, short stories, or poems) to a hypertextual format.
Fragments of text in which links appear allow the reader to determine the order
in which to read the text. Of course, because of these multiple possible paths
and the variable logic of links between fragments, reading the text feels more
like drifting than strolling along a defined path. This has impelled various
authors to adopt a particular style - a sort of compact poetic prose intended
to minimize the reader's disorientation, and to tally with his or her trajectory.
A list of the most successful hypertexts would include Patchwork Girl by Shelley
Jackson, a postmodern reading of Frankenstein in which Mary Shelley creates
a female creature with whom she has a relationship, as well as 253 by Geoff
Ryman, which allows the reader to navigate through the thoughts of passengers
on a subway train in London which is about to leave the rails and crash.
Other places in cyberspace have been transformed into fictions from within. In the year 2000,
when the filmed version of American Psycho was released, Bret Easton Ellis offered
to send his readers emails from Patrick Bateman, the hero-narrator of his novel,
who is a trendy 1980s-era yuppie and serial killer. The reader, just by entering
his or her email address on the movie's Web site, received regular email accounts
from Bateman about his daily thoughts and his murderous projects. This anecdotal
but very effective use of cyberspatial narration - fiction slipping into the
new medium through a well-chosen artifice - literally transformed the reader
into the character's confidant and gave him or her a role in this new type of
Another example of cyberfiction is the phenomenon of self-fictionalization, a popular practice among "internauts" who create virtual identities for themselves in order to participate in MUDs and chatrooms. Everyday construction workers, lawyers, architects, and teenagers use pseudonyms such as SexMachine, FunkyDude, FemmeFatale, or Damien666 to write together a great and transient interactive tale.
Multimediatic experiments on cd-rom have picked up exactly where the shortcomings of fiction hypertexts are felt most, and where the eBook becomes a creative dead end. True companions of the printed
book, these creations do not so much attempt to go beyond it on a technological
level as to open the artistic object to a new universe of possibilities.
Even before the Web appeared, William Gibson published the poem Agrippa (A Book of
the Dead) about his relationship with his late father. To symbolize the frailty
of memory, the poem is offered in limited edition on a compact disc, the content
of which erases itself as we read. The printed version is illustrated by the
New York artist Dennis Ashbaugh using a special ink conceived to disappear upon
prolonged exposure to light. The book will be republished as an eBook.
In 1997 Alex Mayhew and Real World Multimedia produced the cd-rom Ceremony of Innocence.
Here the correspondence between Nick Bantock's characters, Griffin and Sabine,
comes to life through the voices of Isabella Rossellini and Ben Kingsley, as
well as through a wonderful mediatic arsenal composed of interactive sequences,
animations, photomontage and short films.
For those from seven to seventy-seven years old, as Hergé would put it, cd-roms such as Le Livre de Lulu, produced by Romain Victor-Pujebet, or Opération Teddy Bear, by Édouard Lussan, allow
readers to follow a story but also to learn and to have fun. The first tells
of an encounter between Lulu, a character made of ink and paper, and the robot
Mnémo, who tries to transform Lulu into a being made of skin and bones, and
to free her from the linearity of story. It is a book that speaks about itself
through its characters. The book, in fact, becomes the navigation metaphor as
well as its own main character. Opération Teddy Bear is an interactive comic
book (which was rejected by publishers in its traditional form!) that tells
the story of a young boy who, on D-Day in France, has to bring his mother in
the Resistance a teddy bear filled with top-secret documents. The cd-rom simultaneously
offers access to a story and to a phenomenal quantity of information about World
War II, thus mixing together narrative and documentary forms.
In Machines à écrire, Antoine Denize uses the possibilities offered by the computer to turn
Oulipo's experiments in combinatory literature into interactive ones. The reader
is invited to play with Raymond Queneau's 100,000 Billion Poems and to generate
postcards à la Georges Perec.
Let us finally mention Einstein's Dreams: The
Miracle Year, created by Daniel Canty and DNA Productions. This is an adaptation
of Alan Lightman's novel imagining Albert Einstein's reveries about time as
he develops a theory of relativity in Bern in 1905. Excerpts of the text cap
off interactive triptychs that offer multimedia explorations, at once poetic
and explanatory, of Lightman's original vignettes. This project is framed by
a new book in which poems in prose refract the interactive experience.
The Degree Zero of Media
All these examples illustrate
what is most interesting about the literary use of new media, and what is most
fundamental in its relation to old media. Through the mediatic developments
of the past century, text has remained the medium's degree zero, the starting
point of all audiovisual media. There is a text under the voice of the radio
announcer and behind the face of the anchorman; there is a screenplay for every
film. On a computer there is a whole world under the text. Multimedia does not
go beyond books. On the contrary: it puts them on stage, in movement; it gives
Conclusion: Nostradamus Gets an Upgrade
In theory, the relation between printed and digital matter,
and the one between media, often looks like a kind of modern war. But in fact
the situation takes after the greatest of postmodern orgies. Let us leave alarmist
thinkers and revengeful enthusiasts in their respective corners with their habit
of seeing history and the evolution of forms as a war. We will remain fascinated
by the antics of a cultural and technological life in turmoil.
A few predictions: neither the Book nor the Text will disappear, but they will sometimes try on
new clothes. The author will not die, but will become more humble and will learn
to work in a team. The Alarmed and the Enthusiasts will stop sticking their
tongues out at each other, and will unite to convince readers to give up the
right which was granted to them by Daniel Pennac in his essay Reads like a Novel,
and which they largely use: the right not to read.
Nothing in the digital revolution should frighten readers and creators, except maybe the incredible spectrum of possibilities.
Samuel Archibald is a PhD candidate in semiology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He is preparing a thesis on new media fiction and participates in the New Experiences of Textuality Research Group.