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Gutenberg 9.1
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 and software.

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 object.

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 distribution vehicles.

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 to metamorphose.

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 PC
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.

Hypertextual Fiction
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.

Digital Tales
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 epistolary novel.

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.

Multimedia Companions
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 them life.

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.

Links :
[http://www.00h00.com]

[http://www.chbooks.com]

[http://www.hervefischer.net]

[http://www.eastgate.com]

[http://www.ineradicablestain.com]

[http://www.ryman-novel.com]

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