Service Stations chicago home    
city guide events calendar    
bars & clubs    
best of chicago    

Editorial food and drink    
film and video    
music and clubs    


Click for words events

Talking to the foot soldiers on the e-text frontline

Dan Kelly

Rock 'n' roll is dead.

Video killed the radio star.

Add to this list of hastily issued prophesies the following: Soon, books will become obsolete, rendered amusing anachronisms by the advance of electronica. E-books will seize the territory currently occupied by fusty old paper books, and free text from its tightened—academic and literary—constraints.

But is the book dead? No. Will it ever die? Not likely... though I have my detractors. Perhaps what is more important to contemplate than widespread "bibliocide" are the questions that define this argument. Is e-text really text? Will the reading experience change? Is there any money in it? Our attention is so concentrated on the e-books versus printed books battle, we ignore the more interesting skirmishes taking place.

A decade ago, we heard the initial rumblings of the e-book revolution. Publishers predicted a billion-dollar industry while critics claimed the book-burning firemen of "Fahrenheit 451" were at hand. All speculation, since this glorious future was still ten years away. Now, technology has captured vision, and e-books again inspire debate.

In his 1994 book, "The Gutenberg Elegies," essayist Sven Birkerts defended paper books in a tone reserved for saint's relics. The original doomsayer feared the one true path of author-directed, left-to-right reading would become overgrown, abandoned by readers for the many roads of hypertext.

An August 9 Chicago Tribune story, "E-books Solving a Problem Consumers Don't Have," stodgily dismissed e-text. Revealing publishers' growing concerns that what happened to music (hello Napster) would happen to them, and the kvetchings of writers

like Richard DeGrandpre—whose e-book "Digitopia," ironically about technology's depersonalizing effects, bombed in the format—the future of e-books was painted as a bleak one. The article closes with a curmudgeonly quote from Kurt Vonnegut, who states, "The e-book is a ridiculous idea... The printed book is so satisfactory, so responsive to our fingertips. So much of this new stuff is utterly unneeded."

Blame the current ruckus on Stephen King. King's novella, "Riding the Bullet," was downloaded 400,000 times in twenty-four hours, netting him a cool million. Of course, we must recall that he is Stephen King, the Incredible Colossal Wordprocessor. In the marketing mind though, King's success reestablished the crippling notion that e-books are nothing more than a transference of the printed page to the computer screen, and that only through the novel format is e-text useful.

Dominique Raccah, publisher of Naperville-based Sourcebooks, Inc., ( disagrees. "We decided to launch the Sphinx ( part of our site so we could reach consumers with immediate problems." Raccah noted the most popular e-books on were business and computer texts, and began e-publishing self-help books, with an emphasis on those that provide legal advice. has more than 800 forms at the ready, fulfilling a need without packing the shelves with rapidly outdated "Such-and-such for Dimwits" DIY books. Whole books can be bought at the site, but most downloads are of contracts and similar forms. In a nation afloat on a sea of forms and contracts—many outdated as laws change—convenience achieves a rare balance with environmental friendliness at Sourcebooks.

Scott Rettberg, co-author of a hypertext novel called "The Unknown" (, saw that while many nonprofit organizations filled print writers' needs, none existed for e-literature. He developed the Chicago-based Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) (, a haven for a bright, e-lit future. "[The ELO is] not interested in the e-book as the route to sell a million science fiction or romance novels... It's a new medium to be explored artistically," Rettberg explains. A doctoral candidate in English and modern fiction maven, Rettberg values the classic novel form, but sees possibilities beyond mere e-bookery.

"Essentially, we're trying to take a different approach to the industry... what are its unexplored possibilities?" Rettberg asks. The ELO site leads to numerous phantasmagorical associations of image and text, a grand and glorious vision populated by the eye-popping effects of HTML, DHTML, Flash and Shockwave. Like the rocket scientists of the thirties, who labored under the shadow cast by the then-crackpot notion of space exploration, ELO members may look eccentric now, but they promise greater signs and wonders.

Rettberg also points out the correlation between the ELO's snippet-like productions of poetry and prose, and today's reading hour: the lunchbreak. Perhaps a publisher's responsibility lies in providing reading opportunities to everyone in the form with which they're most comfortable. Not lobotomized, as Birkerts feared, just visually interesting, inexpensive and accessible. The tactic worked for paperbacks in the fifties, when publishers feared cheap editions would never sell, and academics imagined readership would drop. Sound familiar?

Within ELO's directory of more than 800 works, I found sites like, a batch of hallucinatory, animated poetry. Could such content be a tad avant-garde for the man and woman on the street—or more precisely, on the train to work? Rettberg notes some re-education may be necessary to help e-lit along: "If you don't have an audience accustomed to thinking of the work as 'literature,' you may have a hard time selling it."

Ordinarily straight-laced University of Chicago demonstrates another shortcoming to the "e-text is bad" argument. The university maintains a searchable online database of academic texts. Elisabeth Long, U of C's Digital Library Development Center co-director, writes in an e-mail that the library is "less about portability than accessibility—opening up the text to a kind of analysis which is painstaking in the real world." The tactility of books can frustrate a researcher seeking specific data, but with e-text, cross-references are possible, inviting comparisons between far-flung texts.

It's not all blocks of type on a screen, either. Websites allow the illuminated texts of Blake, Rossetti and numerous, nameless monks to be studied a world away. True, reading "The Book of Kells" on your iMac lacks the musty sensuality of the original, but try visiting the University of Dublin and checking it out for two weeks. "If you want to read William Blake, you may do best by grabbing a paperback of his poems," Long mentions, "but if you want to study Blake's work, the electronic material that is available is of significant value."

Elitist printed text attitudes also rudely exclude the commoners from self-expression. As the media and academé have helpfully pointed out for years, people are steadily growing less adept at self-expression. Nostalgists painfully report on a golden age when journals were commonplace literary affairs, and amateur journalism clubs were widespread. Now, print publishing remains a closed community, owing to cost and editorial gatekeepers. Even the promise of the zine explosion is hollow. Publishing takes time and money, not to mention design skills and distribution.

Now, thanks to new technology, journal-keeping and amateur journalism are revived and combined. LiveJournal (, for example, provides a free diary service to download-weary Web denizens. Not merely a BBS, LiveJournalists link to one another's journals, weaving a vast web of life accounts. To quote Sartre, "We look upon persons and characters as mosaics in which each stone coexists with the others without that coexistence affecting the nature of the whole." Linking and interweaving, LiveJournal's entries create an exquisite corpse of a literary corpus.

Whereas most famous diaries have to wait until their keepers' deaths for release, the diaries of folks like local writer Jason Pettus ( have fairly loyal followings during their creators' lives. Pettus doesn't live a life fraught with mystery and danger, but despite this handicap, his site has, by his report, a readership of 16,000 daily. Pettus and LiveJournal have transformed a lifetime into a shared experience. The diarist is text alive; the passages in his life become chapters. Faceless authorial authority is pushed aside—the writer becomes more real, accessible and interesting.

Now, about quality. I was afraid that might come up.

William S. Burroughs once said the biggest obstacle a writer faces is knowing how much bad writing he must do before he does any good writing. Perhaps it is so with e-text. We need to be more patient and less focused on its marketable, or social fabric-rending aspects.

Standards are important, but folkways and artistic experimentation are not subject to aesthetic or financial control. As for whether e-text is the "death of the book," one should consider the following: Electronic text frees the writer to eternally craft his or her work, a process in which most writers—at least the good ones—would happily indulge.

Birkerts would disagree. "Nearly weightless though it is," he says,

"... the word printed on the page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not—it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave, an ectoplasmic arrival and departure."

As owner of several hundred books, I cannot rave enough about the experience of reading and the simple elegance of the book. Still, any demonization of e-text must be questioned, whether for its lack of financial worth or aesthetic purity. For all this talk about the e-text's ephemeral nature, it's easy to forget that when we buy a book, we are buying a medium, a means of conveyance. It is good policy then to recall the old saw about freedom of the press applying to he who owns one. In the face of such a tremendous opportunity to resurrect interest in the possibilities of the word, the pessimism of e-text's detractors may very well be the death of the book.


What do you think? Sound off in the boards >

Copyright Newcity Communications, Inc.

about Newcitychicago | about Newcity magazine | advertising | privacy policy | FAQ | employment