There are pundits who prophesy the death of the book in this new computer age and righteously hail the advent of electronic books and CD-ROM, technology, not only as replacements for the printed page, but as a vast improvement over it as well. Readers, however, and many librarians, balk at resigning the traditional book to oblivion, stubbornly resisting the prospect of demoting it to the level of mere historical curiosity. Some argue the seduction of a book's aesthetic nature--the smell of ink, the feel of a page between the fingers, the privacy of imaginative experience--while others offer the more pragmatic point of view that books are the stuff of democratic choice, while anything electronic or computerized is by its very nature too complex (and probably too expensive) for the majority of readers. Even those who realize that the advent of new technology is not necessarily deleterious to the old, but simply different, may ask: What strange marriage is this, between the literature of Shakespeare and the multimedia technology of CD-ROM?
A Good Marriage
For one thing, such a marriage has the potential to be useful and educational, not to mention provocative and entertaining, as any good marriage should be. In 1971, Michael Hart first conceived the idea of entering the great books of Western civilization into 'a computer, using "plain vanilla ASCII text"; his efforts to make books available to anyone cheaply, via computer, has grown into the Internet-based Project Gutenberg, also a CD-ROM with some 269 works contained thereon (published by Walnut Creek).
From humble beginnings, electronic text has grown into electronic books (such as Allegro New Media's Turbobooks and Voyager's Expanded Books) and multimedia education and entertainment, with collections such as Corel's World's Greatest Classic Books and Library of the Future, containing the complete text of more than 1,750 literary titles and a intelligent search engine to find topics and themes of choice. One can but hope that multimedia technology will not so much eclipse the book as augment it said give it greater scope, accessibility, and usefulness--from bedtime story to scholarly text. However, CD-ROM is a still a relatively new medium, and many caution the buyer to beware, as did Allen in a recent New York Times review, comparing a book and its CD-ROM version: "Links that can take you anywhere give you both freedom and chaos. The book breaks into its fragments."
The earliest significant impact that literature on disc had was in children's stories, and this is still the area of largest production in the literature CD-ROM arena. There is a good reason for the popularity of such discs as The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Disc's), How the Leopard Got His Spots (Microsoft), Black Beauty (Sound Source Interactive), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea--these stories have always entertained, and the interactive nature of CD-ROMs (and the sometimes whimsical originality of the disc producers) make them all that more absorbing and entertaining. Reading with a child at a computer, it may be argued, is more interactive than most bedtime reading, and somehow irresistible to parents as well as to children. As Bennett points out in his seminal 1994 examination of children's literature on CD-ROM, "Something magical and non-threatening happens when a children's story weds a computer."
Much of children's literature in book form is illustrated and hence already lends itself to multimedia technology. Combining visual art with text, narration, and interactive coloring-and-composing features does indeed make a classic like Heidi (Queue), as well as a newer story, such as George Shrinks (Harper Collins), likely to be a child's landmark literary experience, much as the Victorian illustrated children's editions of books like Treasure Island were in the past century. The tale of The Tortoise and the Hare (Broderbund Living Books) becomes truly alive when a child gets to see--and has the tools to start and stop--the hare running across the "page" of a computer screen. …