In a short piece at silicon.com “futurist” Peter Cochrane talks about a potential business idea that I’m surprised doesn’t already exist: digitizing personal book collections. As I’ve said in the past, I support the various book digitization efforts from Google and others for these projects’ potential to make the sharing of knowledge easier, not because I want to read all my books (for free or otherwise) from my computer. However, I am intrigued by the option of digitizing at least some of the books I own – perhaps books I’ve read and don’t intend to read in full again. It would be nice to have searchable, digital copies of these books to refer back to, but there are some books that I could never trade in for digital doppelgangers.
The media is aglow with the heatless light of Kindle, Amazon’s just launched reading device that is essentially an iPod for books, magazines and blogs. The online demo video trumpets the wonders of this text vessel. You can drop the thing, read it in direct sunlight and, most notably, use it and acquire new reading materials without a computer. Much of the mainstream print media is on board, as are the big publishing houses.I watched a portion of Charlie Rose’s interview with Jeff Bezos last night, unimpressed by Bezos’s forced-laugh self-satisfaction about this new product that, in his words, will “out book the book.” Fact is, plenty of folks have been tinkering with this concept for years (see my piece about The Institute for the Future of the Book), but with Amazon’s resources behind this endeavor, it seems clear that Kindle will attempt the same sort of market saturation that the iPod has achieved – and here lies the real essence of this development.Now, the shift won’t be complete, at least not at first, as Kindle cannot handle color images or illustrations, yet. When you receive your daily newspaper, or the latest issue of a magazine, you will be getting only the text. On Charlie Rose, Bezos claimed that the technology to handle images is currently in the lab and hearing him say this, for me, smacked of the planned obsolescence of the gadgetry we have embraced.The same as the ideas behind furthering the book with multi-media, open-source applications possess a great deal of exciting potential, the notion of enslaving ourselves to yet another always-improving device is something that needs to be considered and not just ballyhooed blindly, for it seems that the issue of reading is at stake in how it relates to the readers. At one point during the interview, Bezos used the term “Amazonians,” referring to the beta group of Kindle users. The term conjures the idea of tribes (something that Marshall McLuhan and Michel Houellebecq evoke in their work when considering the human relationship with technology). Like the iPod, Kindle, if Amazon succeeds in the way they seem hell-bent on, becomes a lifestyle networked into a corporate hub.As Bezos explained Kindle to Rose he got most excited about what happens when Kindle reaches its new owner: “You turn it on and it already knows you.” You need an Amazon account to buy this thing, and once you do, all of your preferences and browsing history are waiting for you. Filtered through Kindle, it seems fair to say that it is not just about text imparting information to its readers, so much as the text tracking its readers. If you resist the idea of libraries handing over their cardholders’ borrowing histories, isn’t this the same, but on some exponential algorithmic level?This is not a Luddite’s lament, but it is a call to not let the traditional book be demoted in its status as an invaluable tool. I stopped watching Charlie Rose last night after he asked Bezos about the future of books. Bezos nodded, expecting the question. He answered by saying there would always be that “cabinet of curiosities” but that he saw Kindle as the beginning of the future. The curios, in his mind, are codex books, and this is the wrong attitude because it creates a hierarchy that is a disservice to the exchange of ideas. It also seems to displace the ideas, channeling, in an admittedly off-the-cuff leap by yours truly, Plato’s Myth of the Cave. The word “kindle” denotes the starting of a fire. Light from fire, according to Plato, cast shadows that people mistook for the actual world. The challenge of reconciling the object and the image is as ancient as human thought. Kindle, when talking about books and their content, furthers the metaphor, in a way destined to make the culture, or at least the market, forget about traditional books.The book, as I seem to always write in these offerings, will never die (especially illustrated books). I believe this. Rethinking the book vis-a-vis the available technology is a natural human tendency. But forsaking the printed on paper words that have documented human history for the convenience of Kindle seems, as one comment on the NYT Paper Cuts blog posits, more like burning them, as opposed to improving them.Bonus Links: The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts), With blogs available via the Kindle, Ed looks at how they ended up there and who’s getting paid.This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.
This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, Village Voice and San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.In the wake of what was the weltering sea of publishing professionals awash in New York City’s Javits Center for Book Expo America 2007, The New York Times ran the piece “Waxing Philosophical, Booksellers Face the Digital.” The writer invoked John Updike’s speech from a year ago during which he beseeched booksellers to “‘defend [their] lonely forts’ against a digital future of free book downloads and snippets of text.” In the constant digital flutter of information that courses at us through screens – the one you read from this moment, PDAs and cell phones – it stands to reason that technologists would aim to bring reading, writing and the notion of books into the fray of this constantly shifting landscape. While the conversations of how books will endure our digital age have gone on for years, often at rates that far exceed the available technology, this Times piece evidenced the inevitable changes to publishing in the presence of companies like Google and MySpace at places like BEA While the dissemination of books has certainly changed over the years, downloaded or bought at highly reduced prices from Amazon, the product is still very much a book that meets the conventional standards of writing and reading, in the sense that an author has written something for readers, and agree or disagree, like it or hate it, nothing will change about the actual text. Wired editor Chris Anderson was apparently touting his forthcoming book at BEA, something called Free, which will indeed be free to readers willing to download a version interspersed with ads. Print-on-demand books allow more writers the satisfaction of seeing and holding their words on bound pages held together by glue and a case, but they are still, “just books.”In the realm of publishing, however, especially mainstream publishing, the concerns and campaigns are geared to getting better at selling books, not to how the very nature of books is, and has been, changing for years.The Institute for the Future of the Book is on the bleeding edge of this evolution. Headquartered in Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Institute is redefining the act of reading, with the ultimate goal of democratizing how information is created, conveyed, maintained and understood. The Institute is not the first on the block to try to make the best of technology for such a purpose, but it is making its ideas reality. The Institute is a project of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. But it is much more than money, technology and profile that put the Institute at the forefront of this evolution; the Institute’s founder Bob Stein is why the Institute will change how we understand the acts of writing and reading, or not.With the look of a mischievous urban Zen monk, replete with the tonsured pate, Stein has long advocated for the optimal uses of the newest technologies to reinvent the conventions of media. Stein founded the Criterion Collection, today a carefully curated series of films transferred to DVD and supplemented with all the extras, outtakes and commentary we have become accustomed to. But pre-DVD, Criterion took classic films and put them on laser discs. (For those of you who don’t remember, there was a time, albeit brief, during the nascent stage of the digital revolution, when both audiophiles and cinephiles thought the future of film was on a record-sized CD that had to be flipped in the middle of the movie.)The second Stein project to fuse various technologies with the hope of creating a multi-media experience to go beyond just “watching” a movie or “reading” a book was Voyager CD-ROM. In 1988, Voyager produced the first consumer CD-ROM, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The release is also considered the first interactive electronic publication. The recording of the symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic, with the help of Apple’s HyperCard, blended the aural with the visual, altering how users could link and interact with time-based events, in this case music accompanied by a cursor, controlled by the user, that moved across each and every note, elucidating aspects of the music like Beethoven’s sense of rhythm.Voyager released over 500 titles, like Art Spiegleman’s Maus, an examination of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas and a compilation of Mumia Abu Jamal’s writings and interviews, all in the name of creating books that were about much more than ink on paper. Regardless of the subject matter, all of it complex one way or another, Voyager put readers inside the book as active participants. A book was no longer something readers acted on, but acted with.The zeal with which Stein approached these projects, however, has been ramped up tenfold through the Institute for the Future of the Book because now technology can keep up with ambition. The enthusiasm fires out in the office as Stein, Jesse Wilbur, Ben Vershbow and Dan Visel spend their days blogging, writing treatises and hosting a revolving door of programmers, artists, writers and academics chasing and dreaming up ideas with the hope that their programmers, scattered all over the world, can hang with the whimsical but relevant musings of what Vershbow refers to as a group of “wayward humanists” and Wilbur calls “technical evangelism.”At any given moment, the Institute juggles many projects at once, though they all relate to free, accessible networks of information. The cornerstone of these projects, however, is Sophie, an open source digital infrastructure that synthesizes the best aspects of applications like Final Cut Pro, Word and the entire Adobe Creative Suite. (The alpha version of Sophie is available for download, free of charge.) Stein and friends coined the name based on its Greek etymology, meaning “knowledge,” or “wisdom.” They also appreciated the happy coincidence that three of the eleven Sophie programmers live in Sofia, Bulgaria (the other eight live in the United States, Canada and Germany).The potential for Sophie is totally untapped, and if one is to believe the Institute, the potential is limitless, kept in check by nothing other than the bounds of one’s imagination. “When you make a tool,” Stein states matter of factly, “you want people to use it. How they use it has nothing to do with us.”And it is here that things really get interesting. The most influential people behind the Institute are not so much about the technology; rather they are about intellectual economies where theory and practice are equally valued. The Institute wants to do more than democratize information; it wants to reappraise the exchange of information and how it is valued.Reading has always been a transformative activity; look at the Bible or the Qu’ran. Whether for the purpose of educating, manipulating, entertaining or escaping, readers throughout time have read for the purpose of being taken to places outside of their respective physical environments. Both reading and writing have been associated with the ever elusive post-modern “Other,” that state of being or understanding totally apart from the confines of convention. If the powers that be define meaning, like what is “good” and what is “bad,” with nothing but their own interests in mind, once you step outside of that box, the new perspective reveals the subjectivity of those definitions. This is the perspective of the Other, a vantage point from which you can see the entirety of the construct rather than just the walls of the construct in which you are contained.The genteel protagonist of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way is often associated with this notion of stepping outside of the tradition of meaning and understanding. He loathes outside activities; what he relishes, however, are inside activities, especially reading. He greatly appreciates the power of books: “I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book… Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no.” A century removed from Proust’s days, the Institute strives for the same kind of total immersion into the act of reading, where reader and author act as partners, in a process that can conceivably go on forever, never ending just evolving.So What Does the Institute Actually Do?Before this question is answered, first it should be established how the Institute defines a “book,” because it has nothing to do with ink or the tactile turning of pages. No one at the Institute wants to defame the traditional codex book, for they are the primary sources of inspiration that have fed these hungry minds. However, the rapid availability of information has reshaped culture at large; the Institute wants the act of reading, and publishing, to directly respond to the nature of social interaction. We live in a networked world, so there is no reason why books shouldn’t be fully networked landscapes of social interaction, according to the Institute. Cast in this light, a book becomes anything that contains information, whether it is text based around music or images, or images based around text and music, or any permutation of media you can imagine. A book is anything that serves as a vessel for information, really no different from the dead trees you have on shelves and stacked up on the floor, with the exception that traditional books can’t be networked.Sophie is the ultimate example of such new books, a 21st century Voyager in many ways. Though, unlike Voyager products, Sophie, in Stein’s words, “is a very flexible tool. You will be able to make open-ended projects like Gamer Theory or ‘pickled’ objects that resemble printed books.” Sophie is rigged for laypeople; you don’t need to be a programmer to make these books. The spec for Sophie, written by Dan Visel, and found on the Institute’s website, avers: “Sophie is media-agnostic: all media is the same inside of Sophie.” No matter the media employed while using Sophie, the end product is a book, as cut from the fabric of the Institute.”Because Sophie is open source,” says Stein, “it continually evolves itself.” The author will evolve into more of a moderator, the readers will become like panelists or members of a live audience, free to add their thoughts, contest, agree, diverge, all in the pursuit of unfettered knowledge the source of which can always be identified.Though it is a prototype, a mere shadow of what Sophie will permit in terms of media synthesis, McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H3ORY, one title in the “Thinking Out Loud” series, is the best example of what the Institute is getting at in terms of how information can be made transparent and foster new ways of intellectual discourse. The basic premise of Wark’s “electronic monograph” is that life looks and acts like a game. It’s not surprising that the Institute champions GAM3R 7H3ORY, since they are all of the age, with the exception of Stein, in which the video game is ubiquitous, not some novelty that you fed quarters to at the mall if you were lucky enough to catch a ride. Wark contends: “The whole of life appears as a vast accumulation of commodities and spectacles, of things wrapped in images and images sold as things.”In the case of GAM3R 7H3ORY, and as is the essence of this notion of transparent information, readers can respond instantly to Wark’s words, or the words of other readers, and often times Wark responds to them. The text develops with every comment and any subsequent responses. When the whole process is made available for scrutiny, you can be sure certain readers will address the flaws, something the guys at the Institute get excited about. They study the differences in the rhythms of print versus networks, striving to reconcile where analog meets digital. These books permit “the ability to see the layers, the documentation of time.” Ben Vershbow, the guy responsible for bringing Wark on board for this experiment, not without an understandable tone of pride says, “With this kind of model, it’s no longer the author speaking, it’s the book speaking.”Any student of Marshall McLuhan would recognize the relevance of Wark’s book. McLuhan long ago posited that we become the forms of media that we create. He hinges the point on the creation of the printing press, as a matter of fact. The mechanized process of publishing was the first major step toward full-throttle industrialization because objects could readily and regularly be produced, over and over again. “Typography, by producing the first uniformly repeatable commodity,” says McLuhan in an interview in Playboy, “also created Henry Ford, the first assembly line and the first mass production. Movable type was archetype and prototype for all subsequent industrial development.” If you place the emphasis, as McLuhan insists, on the medium rather than the content, then the Institute truly is on the pulse of the culture, even if the culture doesn’t realize it yet. The Institute’s experiments in book making are social experiments, taking place through screens, keyboard and fiber optic cables. For them, it is the means to an organic economy of information that gives voice to any voice that wants to be heard. That’s why the Institute gives Sophie away for free; it is the vessel that transports the information that they are most concerned with. Giving Sophie to anyone that wants it is like throwing out handfuls of wild flower seeds and waiting to see what pops up, except in this case the result is an electronic ecology.And so, where does this leave us? What do you think? We are left with many ideas, many new ideas that need time to breathe and suffer the vagaries of actual application. What the publishing industry needs to realize, however, is that books are primed to be more multifaceted than ever, in ways far more important and compelling than how to sell them. For better or worse, the digital age has made us media junkies in that we expect information delivered as text, imagery and sound, often as quickly as the event from which the information derives happens. These cultural developments do not threaten the traditional book, but they do necessitate writers, publishers and readers to explore and foment these developments, because if they don’t, they will miss out, spending too much time figuring out how to put banner ads in books.If this piece were a Sophie book, what would it look like? You’d have the text, the piece you just read. I will have scanned in various drafts, from which you could read scrawled notes to myself in the margins. There would be lists of what I have been reading, listening to and working on during the process of writing about the Institute. You would be able to read the 1969 interview with Marshall McLuhan from Playboy; River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, Proust and Steinbeck’s often overlooked In Dubious Battle; an article about James Joyce’s cantankerous grandson and the ethics of copyright abuse. And as you read, you’d listen to Jeremiah Lockwood, Broken Social Scene, Amalia Rodrigues, hell, I could dump my entire music library into this thing and you could ride the shuffle the same as me. And don’t forget about Nathan Troi Anderson’s Shadows of Time, a book of black and white photographs of ancient petroglyphs juxtaposed with contemporary advertising. All of these media have influenced this piece. And this is what is important, influence, the influence of the individual to have control of the information he or she is expected to swallow, often times like a dose of castor oil (and now watch a Looney Toons cartoon where Bugs Bunny foists castor oil on Yosemite Sam).Lastly, you would be able to add your own voice to what I have written. You could call this a bunch of futurist hogwash; you could use a single sentence as the point of departure for your own piece about information economies, or McLuhan, or Bob Stein and the Institute for the Future of the Book, and it would all be welcomed as the essence of how information should be relayed and ricocheted today, in a space you can always step outside of and call your own, creating an inside that is always outside the box.
In order to promote its Google Book Search at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the search engine released a list of the most viewed books on the service from September 17th through 23rd, and it doesn’t much resemble the bestseller lists that commonly appear in newspapers. The titles range from Diversity and Evolutionary Biology of Tropical Flowers to a translation of the Holy Qur’an to Build Your Own All-Terrain Robot.The quirky titles on the list highlight the different ways we interact with books. The New York Times and Amazon create lists based on books we buy, LibraryThing, as I mentioned yesterday, creates lists based on what we own, while Google’s list is based on books we look at. I think these different ways in which we interact with books are sometimes forgotten by publishers who assume that books exist only to be part of a commercial transaction. In reality, our relationship with books is much more varied and complex than that.
The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available now on Amazon and in all good bookstores.
There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me. Consider, for a moment, the ebook/paperbook divide. On the one side, the traditionalists, with their—okay, our—love of the objects that we call books. The texture of the paper, the beautiful dust jackets. Being able to see how much of a book remains to be read, as pages stack up on the left and diminish on the right. The ability to see two pages at once and have a sense of what’s coming. Writing in the margins.
On the other side stand the gadgeteers with their cold slim readers, packing entire libraries into a volume the size of a novella, flipping pages on a touchscreen. I don’t own a digital reader, but I understand why other people do. Aside from the natural joy of owning a shiny new gadget, there’s an undeniable appeal from a purely minimalist standpoint—why agonize over which two books to cram into your suitcase, when you can bring your entire library with you?—and I have to imagine that ebook aficionados have a much easier time of moving than I do. When I move to a new apartment, it’s a Herculean task involving towering mountains of impossibly heavy small boxes with labels like Fiction: Ames – Bellow and Theatre Books: Box 1 of 10. It isn’t pretty.
Digital readers and paper books have little in common. But both objects have considerable merit, and this is why I think we should combine the two.
The future of the book that I imagine involves an object that looks, in every detail, like a high-quality hardcover. The difference is that there’s no title visible on either the cover or the spine. When you first open the book, all the pages are blank. Hundreds of pages of high-quality paper—a slight sheen might hint at the underlying circuitry—with nothing on them. The cover is blank too.
You might mistake the object for a blank notebook, except for the discreet touchscreen on the inside of the front cover. Here you scroll through your library, and select the book you want to read. For old time’s sake, let’s say The Catcher in the Rye. Once you’ve made your selection the pages remain blank for just a heartbeat—the process taking place in the heart of the book’s machinery is, after all, quite complex—but then the famous orange carousel horse of the first edition dust jacket rises slowly out of the blankness of the front cover, like an image rising out of Polaroid film. JD Salinger‘s name appears on the spine above the publisher’s logo, and then all at once the pages begin to fill. The book is typesetting itself.
The first page is no longer blank. Beneath the Chapter One heading, the famous and incorrigible opener has appeared: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born…”
The object in your hands looks and feels like a book. The pages feel like paper. You flip through them, and all the words are there waiting for you; there’s no waiting for a screen to refresh. The object might even be made, with a judicious dash of library-scented accord from my favorite perfume shop, to smell like the books you grew up with. You can make notes on the pages if you wish, provided you use the special digital pen attached by means of a thin ribbon to the spine.
But suppose you get tired of reading Salinger after awhile, or you finish the book. You go back to your touchscreen just inside the front cover, and flip through your library until you find something that appeals to you. Select the new volume, and the process begins again. Just a moment of blankness, while Salinger’s carousel horse fades out. The notes you took in the margins have vanished, but they’ll be there again the next time you want to read The Catcher in the Rye.
And then, Leo Tolstoy‘s name on the spine. Turn the first page and the text of Salinger’s book has dissolved. The first line of the novel now reads as follows: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The book in your hands is now Anna Karenina.
It only sounds like magic. Electronic paper—flexible sheets of paper-like material, comprised in various versions of polymer, microcapsules of oil, arrays of electrodes—has been around since the ‘70s, when Nick Shelton at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created the first sheet of the stuff. Research continued in the decades that followed, and in early 2010 LG debuted a new prototype: a sheet of electronic paper with the dimensions of a newspaper page, weighing only 130 grams.
In the photographs that accompanied the press release, the material holds a glassy patina; a man and a woman hold sheets of LG’s new paper in what looks like the Tokyo subway system, and the sheets hold the front page of a daily newspaper. It doesn’t quite look like paper, but it’s close. It’s so close.
Is there any reason why, a few years from now, when the technology’s become lighter and better and less expensive, we couldn’t make entire books out of this stuff? There are of course logistical problems to consider—how to manage the display of a 600-page novel on a device that only has 350 pages, for instance—but this sort of thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly insurmountable.
It seems to me that the failing of our digital readers to date is that the focus has been almost entirely on the content. Our earliest books were sublimely executed works of art, years and decades and entire lifetimes poured into the lettering and ornamentation of medieval manuscripts. The printing press changed all of this, of course, but the ghost of that early obsession with beauty has lingered. Beautiful books have remained with us, in ever-changing form, through all the seasons of publishing: gorgeous book jackets, impeccably designed interiors, gilt lettering on cloth. But digital readers have been focused solely on finding the best possible means of presenting the book’s words, of inventing the ideal flatscreen to display them on. I fear we’re nearing a point of forgetting the idea of books as objects, as works of art whose form, not just whose content, we might consider preserving.
The book in your hands has transformed itself into Anna Karenina, but why stop there? One of the major problems of reading is the difficulty of ignoring the chaotic world around you. We’ve all been stuck in airplanes with screaming small children. Because blocking out this sort of thing by sheer willpower alone can be impossible, I wonder if perhaps our books might be enlisted to help us out.
I read a fascinating article a few years back about directed-sound technology, and its potential for in use in museums. One of the aural problems of museums is that some patrons want to hear information about what they’re standing on front of, whereas others would vastly prefer to contemplate in silence. The idea with the directed-sound technology is that if you’d like to learn more about a particular display, you step into a specific location in the room—perhaps indicated by a circle of light projected onto the floor—and there, only there, at that particular point, in a projected column of ultrasonic sound, you hear a recorded voice explaining the nuances of 16th-century Chinese calligraphy or the finer details of the Battle of Brooklyn.
Directed-sound technology has advanced to the point where beams of sound can be directed at an individual in such a way that the people sitting on either side of them will hear nothing. All of this makes me think that the book, once the technology advances a little further and can be easily embedded without adding too much weight, should have a noise-canceling button. Click it and step into the circle of light; you’d be cast, all at once, into your own private aural landscape. Perhaps it might enable silence, or some sort of soothing ambient noise. Care would have to be taken not to zone out completely at, say, airport departure gates, but I think the concept has promise.
I was thinking the other day of sound-enabled picture books. It would be a strange and dazzling new form. Page upon page of gorgeous illustrations, with music, with text and spoken word that no one but the reader could hear. An interactive art project. Or imagine the more practical applications for travel books: on the page listing useful phrases for the country you’re traveling in, you could hear the pronunciation before you spoke, so as to avoid making a fool of yourself when you’re trying to order coffee in Slovakia.
For all my love of the electronic innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are certain tactile experiences that I’m not willing to surrender. The experience of turning pages is one of them.
I love machines, but I want the book I hold in my hands fifty years from now to look like the books I remember from childhood. I want to be able to see two pages at a time, I want to take notes in the margins, I want to flip backward to see what I missed. Most importantly, I want the bookstores I love to still exist in the future.
The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable. I’ve never really liked grocery shopping; it’s nice that now I can do it online at midnight. I feel the same way about buying shoes. But books? That’s something else entirely.
I imagine the bookstores of the future. They’d look very much like the bookstores of now, except it’s possible that they might be a little smaller; if most people are downloading books to machines, they’d need much less stock. A few people might still want to buy the old kind of book, the kind made out of paper, especially at author events. Those of us with the new books, the ones made out of electronic paper that can transform into other books in our hands, will browse for a while and then perhaps, if we happen to be carrying our new books with us, pay for and download the volumes we want to buy. Or perhaps we’ll buy books on a volume the size of a flash drive, to be downloaded to our new books when we get home later.
And then we’ll sit in parks and subways and on sofas, the same as we have since the invention of the printing press, and we’ll flip through the pages of our beautiful machines.
A week ago, an article in the New York Times created a mini-furor in literary circles. As the resident Japan expert in my circle of friends, everybody was asking me, “So what’s the deal with these cell phone novels?”The NYT article was the first I’d heard of them. I did a quick Internet search, and what do you know? The Times was right, they’re all over the place. Google spits ups thousands of pages, and several of the more popular novels are listed on the Internet Movie Database as films in production.What does this mean for the English novel? Is this the future of literature? In Japanese, maybe. There are a number of features of Japan’s language and culture that make a cell phone novel more palatable than it would be in English. First, Japanese grammar is much better suited than English to the kind of short sentences writing on a cell phone encourages. As a high-context language, a complete sentence in Japanese can consist of just a single, lonely verb. Japanese speakers and writers frequently and freely omit subjects and objects from their sentences, expecting the reader to figure out what’s going on. Go figure. The use of Chinese characters also serves to compact sentences. Since you don’t have to actually spell out entire words, as in English, but can represent them with an ideogram, you can say a lot more in a much smaller space.Secondly, and perhaps just as important, cell phone novels tap into long traditions of Japanese prose and poetry. First, even a cursory examination of a cell phone novel will show a visual connection to the poetic traditions of haiku and tanka. The connection doesn’t end there, at its best the writing itself has an economy and – I’ll regret saying this – poetry that taps into the same tradition. The medium – you try typing a novel on the keypad of a cell phone – forces the writers to make every word count, and (in Japanese at least) it shows. The themes, as well, harken back to traditional Japanese themes. The first “modern” novel (written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Japan), The Tale of Genji, was basically a high school love story, and nothing has changed since then. In manga, on television and in literature, the amatory exploits of high school students have always captured the imagination of the Japanese public. And the long, long literary tradition there, combined with the frequent use of public transportation, means that books in general, whether written on cell phones or not, occupy a much more important place in Japanese culture than in the West.So what are these cell phone novels like? For the curious, I’ve translated a short passage from Sky of Love, the number one best seller by Mika, recently made into a movie. I’ve only read the first chapter, but apparently it’s a heart wrenching tale of young love, as seen through a Jerry Springer filter of premarital sex, teen pregnancy, gang rape and mortal disease. Enjoy.Translation note: Two things. First, I’ve done my best to preserve the sentence structure and formatting of the original (at the expense of clarity and good prose, I’m afraid). This is more or less how it looks and reads in the original Japanese. Second, it’s common in Japanese for people to refer to themselves in the third person. The protagonist here does that frequently. It’s a habit that’s considered somewhat childish and endearing.Sky of Love (the novel in Japanese, for those who’d like a visual reference.)PrologueIf I hadn’t met you that day…I don’t think I would haveFelt this bitterness.This pain.This sadnessCried this much.But.If I hadn’t met you…This happiness.This joy.This love.This warmth.I wouldn’t have known that either.Today, I’m going to look through my tears and up at the sky.Look to the sky.Chapter One– A smile”God, I am so hungry♪♪”Finally lunch time. Felt like I’d been waiting forever.Same as always, Mika puther lunchbox on her desk and opened it.School is a drag.The only thing I like about it is eating with Aya and Yuka, my friends from class.–Mika Tahara–She’s a freshman, who started at this school in April.It hasn’t even been three monthssince she got here.She’s met some people she likes and gets along with. She’s had some pretty good times.She’s short.And stupid.And not that prettyDoesn’t have any special talents.Or even know what’s she wants to do with herself after graduation.Bright, tea-colored hair she dyed right after she got here.She’s wearing a little makeup, but it looks strange on her, especially at this time of day.She stumbled out of middle school and right into average.She had normal friends.She had normal crushes.She dated three guys.I don’t know if that’s normal, or what.But, what I know is normal,is that those relationships all ended fast. That’s what she’s saying.She doesn’t know real love.All she knows is how to fool around,Just that.Love…Who needs it?It was right then…I met you.Mika’s life: she expected it would end in the same boring way it had begun. Meeting you was going to change all that.Like always, Mika and Aya and Yukawolf down their food.Why is it everyone gets so quiet when they eat?The classroom door rattles open,A guy with one hand in his pocketwalks overto the three of them.That guy, he stands in front of themAnd he starts talking. Casually.”Hey! My name’s Nozomu. I’m in the class next door. You heard of me?”The three girls look at each other.They pretend they don’t know what he’s talking about.Just keep eating their lunches.Since I’d gotten to school, I’d heard a lot of rumors about Nozomu.A player.A flirt.A playboyIt seemed like he was walking around schoolwith a different girl on his arm every day.”Watch out for Nozomu!””If he’s got his eye on you, you don’t stand a chance.”Didn’t somebody tell me that…?He’s got a well-proportioned faceon a tall body.Highlights in his hair,styled with wax for that “casual” look.Eyes looking right at you, like they could see… something.He’s got the right stuff for getting girls. There’s no question about that.The problem is his personality.Maybe… if he was a little more serious…With all those rumors floating around. I don’t even need to tell you I’m not interested.The three girls continue eating their lunches, pretending they haven’t even noticed him.”Hey, now. You’re ignoring me? Let’s be friends. ♪ Come on, give me your number.”His insistence makes me thirsty.Mika, annoyed, grabbing a bottle of barley tea in one handgulping it all down.”What do you think I’m going to do? It’s cool. Just tell me your number.”There’s silenceSuddenly, Aya breaks it.Mika and Yuka, looking at each other in disbelief.Aya gives him her number with a smile.It’s hard to believe this is happening.I wait until Nozomu has left the room, all puffed up and full of himself. Then turning to Aya, blurting out:”Why would you give your number to a guy like that? He’s trouble.”Aya responds to Mika’s worry, like it’s no big deal.”What can I say? I like cute guys. Ha.”Aya’s a mature, beautiful woman.She’s stylish and her best feature isher long hair, a little wavy, and the red-brown of tea.She’s got bad luck with guys. All the ones she’s dated are just playing with her…That’s why, even when she gets a boyfriend, it’s just a few dates, quick break-up, repeat.”Aya. Don’t get serious with a guy like that.”To Yuka, with the serious faceAya turns and lightly replies.”Don’t worry about it.”School lets out.I go home, and lay around in my room, watching TV.That’s when…♪Ring♪The ring echoes through the room.There’s no name on the caller id.It’s from a number that’s not in my phone.I wonder who it is…I pick-up to find out.”Hello…?””…”… silence.”Hellooo…”I say it with a little more self-assurance.Click.Beep, beep, beep.They hung up.Prank call?Probably a wrong number.♪Ring♪Again, the ring echoes through the room.The same number as before.They’re not going to say anything anyway, I think.So, I answer like I don’t give a shit.”What?””…lo? Hello. Hello?”On the other end of the line, I can faintly hearthe sound of an unfamiliar man’s voice.”Who is this?”The guy on the other endshouts in a voice so loud I think it’s going to blow out my eardrum.”…Mika? The signal’s bad! It’s Nozomu! You remember? The guy who talked to you at lunch today!”WTF? Nozomu?The Nozomu who hits on all the girls? That Nozomu?The guy who got Aya’s number today… That Nozomu?I start to panic.I can’t findthe words to reply.I should just hang up. Shouldn’t I?