Books are great — and e-books will be too.
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Again, you wouldn’t have to read the pop-up annotations — which, remember, are prompted by cursor movements. You might decide to ignore the cursor and read the e-book as you would a standard paperback. But Sloth is a novel about wordplay and allusion as much as character and plot, a winking tour of the traditional canon of dead white males as well a satire of postmodern notions such as the death of the author, the de-centered self and the destabilized text. (Yeats, for example, was a practitioner of “automatic writing” in which the text doesn’t derive from the author’s conscious mind; in the case of Sloth, it may be that Zezel’s interruptions are only manifestations of the narrator’s subconscious. Yet the narrator courts the exercise girl by pretending to be Zezel… who writes newspaper columns under the pen name “Mark Goldblatt.”) An electronic version of the book — currently in production — that also served, in effect, as an annotated edition would make Sloth more enjoyable, or at least more accessible, to readers who don’t happen to be literature professors, graduate students or writers themselves. The electronic edition, in short, opens up the book’s target audience from classics junkies to anyone with a fondness for cheap laughs and a passing acquaintance with the Norton Anthology.
Cursor-prompted annotations are one of many changes on the e-book horizon — and perhaps the least dramatic. These changes will necessarily alter the entire calculus that goes into a book’s creation. Consider: We now live in a world in which, for the first time, there are two distinct ways to read: 1) with your eyes alone, and 2) with a cursor. The two ways to read point to two very different reading experiences… and that difference will affect not only how books are acquired and published but also how they are imagined and executed.
The experiential possibilities of an e-book are not limited to the words on the screen. With inevitable hardware advances, there will eventually be suspense novels, for example, with creepy background music and momentary visual effects. As the heroine steps inside the seemingly deserted house, a bass line will pulse through your headset. As you scroll across the words, “She heard a sudden rustling of wind through the tattered curtains,” you’ll hear a rustling. Then, as your pulse quickens, when the villain leaps out from behind the curtains, an animated graphic will emerge from behind the words on the screen to menace you for a split second, then recede.
As unsettling as such innovations may seem, they needn’t encroach on the experience of traditional readers — not even those seduced by the siren song of a Nook, Kindle or iPad. The option of sight reading, of scanning down the page line by line, without using the cursor, will always remain. But the range of new possibilities is sure to impact how writers write; many will write with an e-book specifically in mind. They will become orchestrators as well as wordsmiths — deciding, in the case of Sloth, what to annotate, but, in the future, deciding what to score, what to illustrate and what to animate. The results will be hybrids… not unlike the way today’s graphic novels are hybrids of traditional novels and comic books.
The existence of such hybrid forms will, in turn, drastically affect what gets published. Acquisition editors will have to factor into their decisions not only familiar literary criteria — the words on the page — but also, in the case of e-books, the totality of the experience created by the writer. As a result, commercial publishing houses will have to hire effects editors as well as text editors. It will be a brave new world for book marketers as well. How many potential book buyers have been siphoned off by movies, television and the Internet over the last half century? Marketing departments will perhaps reclaim a portion of those lost audiences with an enhanced sensory experience.
The power of books has always been their intimacy, the exquisite closeness of a story playing itself out inside your head. But the price of that intimacy is cultural literacy and heightened concentration — a price fewer and fewer people have been willing or able to pay. That is the reality. But with pop-up annotations, sounds and sights, the price drops precipitously.
More people will become book lovers. They’ll just love their books in different ways than book lovers did before.
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