Of Carbon Flies, Hieroglyphics, and Body Texts: A Fond Farewell to the Word (*)

Article excerpt

The first day of the year 2000 brought a double-issue of Newsweek consisting largely of a collection of previews and predictions entitled "The 21" Century: A User's Guide." 'Where one would normally find the book reviews, an essay provided a time schedule for the demise of the book as we know it made of paper, boards, glue, and ink. How would this come about? The essay's author interviewed a publishing executive about the anticipated victory of the electronic book:

The turning point is going to come when one of the brand-name authors actually boils and goes direct to the reader. ... [He] even ventures a guess who that author might be: Stephen King. ... So what's to stop him from selling The Dead Zone or some other 2004 thriller exclusively by $12 downloads in e-book format from StephenKing.com--and raking in a too percent royalty, after the relatively minimal expenses of formatting the book and maintaining the server? (1)

It took less than three months to fulfill this prophecy, if, indeed, it was one and not merely industry insiders' gossip. A Los Angeles Times wire story, whose title in the local newspaper made no sense, reported "Online Fiction a Book's Nightmare.'(2) Do books really have nightmares? The story explained the intent of the title-writer. "It's a bibliophile's worst nightmare--fiction available online. The frightening scenario for book lovers played Out earlier this month courtesy of master of horror Stephen King. The Maine author released his 16,000-word story Riding the Bullet, exclusively over the Internet for $2.50." The differences between the prophecy and the reality in this case are minor. The book is not a novel, but a 66-page story, and the transaction did involve a traditional book publishing house, in this case Simon&Schuster. This may seem minor to the reader, but a major concern is that it is the exclusive means of publication.

What does this say about our future? The New York Times columnist Frank Rich has little doubt which direction the publishing of books will take:

Yet if you look at Riding the Bullet in the context of all the other sweeping changes in the cultural marketplace just since New Year's, the future doesn't seem that foggy at all. The prognosticators writing the ad copy at Microsoft, painful as it is to concede, may be right. [f books aren't abandoning their analog containers for digital ones, they're about the only mainstream media product that is not. (3)

A recent television program explained a current--clearly pejorative--use of the name of the inventor of movable type printing. A "Gutenberg" is a post-Luddite who insists on having a paper copy printed out instead of reading directly from the computer screen. (4)

Many do identify with this "Gutenberg" as well as with all the other paper-readers over the centuries, taking at face value the student's wisdom in Faust: "for [only] what we possess black on white can be safely carried home" (1: 1966-67).

In Nobel laureate Elias Canetti's greatest contribution to twentieth-century literature, his extensive autobiography, the author defined the driving force of his life and his work as always having had "an insatiable desire for letters.

What Canetti said could be said about many of us. Growing up, and ever since then, all I really wanted to do was read. I might have been what Joyce Carol Oates, by writing about her own experiences, describes as the ideal reader:

An adolescent: restless, vulnerable, passionate, hungry to learn, skeptical and naive by turns; with an unquestioned faith in the power of the imagination to change, if not life, one's comprehension of life. To the degree to which we remain adolescents we remain ideal readers to whom the act of opening a book can be a sacred one. [6]

So it was with me. The illustrations on the dust jackets, the texture of the linen bindings and the smell of the books, like the joy of reading at night in a still house, were not only pleasures for the mind but for the senses, pleasures that have nourished me constantly and faithfully throughout my life. …