For centuries, readers wanting literature turned to books. There
they found Homer, Cicero, Shakespeare, and Faulkner. Books are how
one generation passed its literary tradition to the next.
But this tightly bound relationship is coming unglued. A growing
band of writers is challenging traditional notions about the book
with new electronic forms of literature. Does one page always have
to follow another? Does a book have to stay within two covers? Does
it have to exist as a physical object at all?
Maybe not. Using computer technology, writers are generating new
literary forms that one day may replace the paper-based book as the
main means of communicating ideas.
Literary conservatives warn against this trend, and even
supporters aren't sure whether the experiments will fly. But the
movement is getting serious attention. This week, scholars at the
annual convention of the Modern Language Association will devote
several sessions to hypertext novels and, for the first time,
"It's a very distinguished conference," says Loss Pequeno
Glazier, a digital poet and director of the Electronic Poetry
Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "The mere
fact that it has been included ... shows that academia is beginning
to open its eyes to the possibilities."
Digital literature ranges from electronic poems, which display
on-screen but just as easily could be printed on paper, to
sophisticated poems and novels that offer multiple paths through
which the reader can travel. This latter electronic form is called
Instead of reading from beginning to end, hypertext encourages
the reader to skip around via electronic links.
One of the first hypertext novels to gain prominence was a 1992
work called "Afternoon, a Story." Author Michael Joyce writes about
Peter, who on his way home from work sees the aftermath of a car
wreck and suspects it involves his wife and son. The reader can
choose to move in disjointed fashion through the story screen by
screen. But at the "end," it's not clear what has happened to the
mother and child.
If readers click on various key words in the text, they can pick
alternative routes that yield additional clues and context for
other characters in the story.
Hypertext may be even more useful to poets, says Mr. Glazier.
That's because poets have to use few words to convey an idea. And
if a reader doesn't understand the phrase, he can quickly link to
material that explains it. Uninformed readers might see a picture
of a Grecian urn, for instance, while reading Keats's "Ode on a
Grecian Urn." Glazier's own poems link to other poetic material,
which lead to other allusions, creating a kind of literary