Books are great — and e-books will be too.
Many years ago, a sadistic literature professor of mine suggested James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as a book I might want to read over the summer. He based this judgment on the fact that I hadn’t been altogether repelled — as the rest of the class had — by Samuel Beckett’s experimental novel Watt. He saw potential in me, and I knew it, so I went out and bought FW determined not to let him down.
To say that I was in over my head is an understatement. I should’ve put on a snorkel before I read the first sentence. I’d never felt more stupid… and more taken. In the end, I couldn’t get past page thirty. But even after I’d thrown in the towel, I couldn’t put the book behind me. Years later, I sat down with an annotated edition and made it through to the end. I still didn’t understand a lot of it — many of the annotations needed annotations. But it was one of the great literary joys of my life.
Cut to the present: When I first came up with the idea for my new novel Sloth, I wanted to write a kind of friendlier, slapshtickier Finnegans Wake — a book that would be funny page by page but would carry a subtext in which a different and more complicated story unfolded. The whole would make sense if you happened to be fluent in Dostoevsky, Dickens, Sophocles, Dante, Yeats, Nabokov, Philip Roth, Nathaniel West, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice… as well as Aquinas, Descartes, Martin Buber, Henny Youngman, Mr. Ed and Dr. Seuss. Otherwise, it would just be a strange (but, I hoped, funny) book.
Predictably, Sloth was a nightmare for my agent to sell. Before it was picked up by Greenpoint Press, a six-year-old, not-for-profit press, it was rejected at least twenty-five times. Several editors at commercial houses expressed interest, only to be overruled by colleagues and executive editors. The argument against it was always that the target audience was too narrow to be profitable — undoubtedly true … if you only take into account the print version.
Perhaps, though, Sloth was a more natural fit as an e-book all along. The idea is strange — and certain to unnerve devotees of the printed-page like Lisa Fabrizio. The old paradigm of the electronic edition of a book as a mere reproduction of the print version remains dominant for the time being. But the e-book format has the potential to be much more than a reproduction. How would a book like mine tap that potential?
With optional on-screen annotations.
Sloth consists of journal entries by a nameless narrator in which he recounts his quest to win the heart of a TV exercise girl. But midway through, the journal is interrupted by his best friend Zezel — who breaks into the narrator’s apartment, reads the journal on his computer, and inserts a risqué counter-narrative that lampoons and deconstructs the original. If you turn to page 109 of the print edition of the book, you find Zezel’s first interruption:
“We’re going to die,” she said. “The comet Kohoutek, the planets, even the phases of the moon are unequivocal in this regard.” Thus, we joined. She with the intensity of doom, and I because I am me, and because I like to relate to women in a full and open manner. The warm tides of the Sargasso engulfed me, those dying generations lost amid the mackerel-crowded C. Ever it was: Her expression distracted, her hair gyred by the wind, her face framed against the constellations, she was fixed upon me, fixed beyond me. She was fixed, and then at last she broke. Her very ponderousness heaped out of my hands. She panted. She moaned. She cooed and bayed: Her mind moved upon silence.
Now suppose you encountered the same passage in an electronic edition, and you scrolled through it with a cursor, rather than merely scanning it with your eyes. The following annotations might pop up:
Kohoutek: dubbed the “comet of the century” before its appearance in 1973, and believed by some to herald the end of the world, it proved a dud, even for astronomers.
Phases of the moon: poem by W. B. Yeats in which he lays out the cyclical nature of history, with each cycle containing in it the seeds of the next — thus, a world with no end.
Sargasso: Sea in the North Atlantic often represented in literature and popular culture as a place of irresolvable mystery, here associated obscenely with a woman’s sexuality.
Those dying generations… mackerel-crowded C: See “Sailing to Byzantium” by Yeats, in which he considers the possibility of human immortality through art.
Gyred by the wind: The gyre was the funnel shape invoked by Yeats to symbolize history’s cycles.
Her mind moved upon silence: See “Long Legged Fly” by Yeats which contains the refrain “Like a long-legged fly upon a stream / His mind moves upon silence.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?