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Previously in Digital Reader:

"Exit Gutenberg?," by Ralph Lombreglia (November 16, 2000)
At last week's eBook World conference in New York, only one thing was certain: the future of our literary culture is up for grabs. The first installment of a new online column covering the emerging world of digital publishing and its effects on what and how we read.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte's Technology & Digital Culture conference.

The Ghost of E-Books Past

How a trip to the mall on a December night became a personal journey into e-publishing's not-so-distant past

by Ralph Lombreglia

December 14, 2000

One night recently, around 9 P.M., I had the overwhelming desire for a book. It was a book I'd been meaning to read for years but had never bought, and I became convinced that if I could have that book that very night, and spend one or two quiet hours turning its pages, something important would be unleashed in my soul. My wife and daughter had gone to bed, and I should have been in bed too, so that I could arise before dawn to write a book myself. It's not easy, writing a book. I like to work on mine before the world starts working on me, and most mornings I'm bathed in laptop light long before the paper guy hurls the Times and the Globe onto the porch. But this particular night I wanted to give duty the slip and bathe myself in another kind of light, the magical, transforming light of an author's voice and mind.

I had shelves of books all around me in my house, books piled on tables, books under the tables, books under the sofa and bed. I had never read many of them, either. Their spines accused me as I put on my coat and went out to the car. I live off an old cowpath in a Boston suburb—a long, straight road that some people say is the route of Paul Revere's ride. On my mental map it's called Road to the Mall. And right across from the Mall, on the former site of a Howard Johnson's, stands a humongous Barnes & Noble, open late.

It has often been said that forty years of irradiation by the terrible blue light of TV has killed the yearning for the kind of light, book-light, that pulled me out to my car that night. A more recent fear is that the computer's siren song is drowning out the author's voice. But the virtual reality of Amazon.com—the only Web retailer to achieve the sacred status of a "brand"—suggests otherwise. And here in the physical world, down the old cowpath from my house, the brick-and-mortar reality of Barnes & Noble suggests otherwise, too. It was 9:15 P.M., and I had to wait for a spot in their gigantic parking lot.

Unfortunately, they didn't have the book I wanted. I didn't fault them for it; it's an old book, and no store can carry everything—at least not until the print-on-demand machines arrive. I should have read it in the seventies, anyway, along with everyone else. Barnes & Noble did, however, have a book I'd wanted for my daughter, and as I stood in the checkout line, I saw something I hadn't expected. A sign on the sales counter read, "Unlimited Free Internet Access," and beneath it stood a stack of boxes containing CD-ROMs.

At the counter I examined one of the CD packages skeptically. As I suspected, it was Windows only. (Like many people in the arts, I use the Macintosh OS on Apple computers.) I was about to put the CD back when I turned it over and saw, in small print, that it also included a hundred free e-books. That explained the free Internet access. It's well-known that Barnes & Noble has been aggressively marketing e-books and investing in e-book publishers. Of course they were offering free Internet access. The Internet is the cowpath to their other store: the one in cyberspace.

The e-books on the CD would be Windows-only too, naturally, and would require the Microsoft Reader—the software that Microsoft claims to be "the future of reading," but which it has seen fit to release only for its own operating system. I took the free CD anyway. Some of my professional work is in digital media, so I do have Windows running in my home office, mostly for testing Web projects. I could install Microsoft Reader if I wanted to.

When I got the CD home, it turned out to contain some excellent public-domain titles: Erasmus's In Praise of Folly, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, Kafka's Metamorphosis, James's Varieties of Religious Experience. Using the Microsoft Reader software itself may not have been a religious experience, but it was a perfectly pleasant one (it has an interface resembling the company's Encarta encyclopedia series). The text of Madame Bovary appeared on screen in pages much like those of a physical book, the typography sporting the new "sub-pixel rendering" technology—Microsoft calls it "ClearType"—that triples the resolution of text on screen (LCD screens only), making it much closer to print on paper than any on-screen text of the past. Microsoft Reader offers the standard searching and bookmarking and annotation features, all well done, and of course it connects to the Net—"transparently," as computer people say, meaning that you don't know it's happening. A couple of innocent clicks in the "Library" section of the Microsoft Reader program and I was back at Barnes & Noble for the second time that night—this time without my car.

Orpheus Emerged The cyber B&N had its bestselling e-books prominently displayed on the page where I landed, and topping the list was Orpheus Emerged, an early and never-before-published novella by Jack Kerouac. A new-media publisher called LiveREADS has just brought it out as an electronic exclusive—that is, no paper edition exists. Intrigued, I clicked myself to www.livereads.com to see who was behind the thing. I glumly expected to find the young, dangerous, and subversive Jack Kerouac available only to Windows users, too, but this was not the case. Orpheus Emerged does come in Microsoft Reader format, but its publisher actually recommends that you not buy that version because the version published on the Adobe Acrobat platform (Microsoft's main competitor) is closer to what LiveREADS believes an electronic book should be. (That is, the Acrobat eBook version includes multimedia elements not available in the Microsoft version.) So, I bought Orpheus in Acrobat.

From The Atlantic:

"The Only People For Him," by Ralph Lombreglia (August 1996)
In Lionel Trilling's distinction, Jack Kerouac is more than a writer; he has become a "figure" in our culture. A review of The Portable Jack Kerouac and Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Jack Kerouac and the Beats" (November 3, 1998)
A look back at how Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beats have figured in the pages of The Atlantic, including the magazine's 1957 review of On the Road.

Truth be told, I did not buy the new Kerouac e-book that night simply because it was the top seller at the cyber B&N. I had a more personal reason. Once, I had made a Kerouac e-book myself. In the early nineties, my wife and I were hired by a small development company (not unlike the LiveREADS of its day) to produce a CD-ROM based upon material licensed from the Jack Kerouac estate. The product would incorporate a great deal of material, much of it never before seen, but its core was The Dharma Bums, the breezily Buddhistic novel that Kerouac wrote just after On the Road made him famous. Our central task was to make The Dharma Bums electronic.

At the time, "electronic books" were nearly synonymous with a company called Voyager, which published them and also sold a software kit for making them. The kit would "flow" a digital text file into on-screen pages and allow you to add images, text links, and audio and video. Voyager was a visionary outfit that made some great products (their interactive music CD-ROMs, and in particular their disc based on the Beatles film A Hard Day's Night, deserve a place in history), but to my mind their e-book concept was a design-deficient cookie cutter that embodied everything I disliked about computer multimedia. So we hired a small but brilliant team of creative souls, threw away everything we all thought we knew about the idea of the "electronic book," and spent an extremely difficult year-and-a-half reinventing the concept from scratch.

A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus The result was A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus, published by Penguin Electronic in 1995. Regarding its treatment of The Dharma Bums, I will say only this: if a more ambitious "multimedia illumination" of a full-length literary text has ever been attempted, I'm not aware of it. Hundreds and hundreds of phrases in Kerouac's text were linked to pop-up annotations in various media: photographs of people, places, memorabilia from the author's estate, and pages from his notebooks; audio readings of various texts; clips from films; original interviews videotaped for the project. All these years later, it still looks great. Unfortunately, you can't see it, because it's no longer available. When we started the project, no one had ever heard the word Netscape. When we finished it, the word Netscape was everywhere, and before long the World Wide Web helped kill the CD-ROM publishing business and in the process set multimedia production back at least five years. Eight months after A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus appeared (and got its five-star reviews and its New Media magazine "Invision" award for Best Electronic Book), Penguin Electronic folded and our CD-ROM was gone. The most telling detail of all? The sales force of our world-class publisher never managed to convince Cybersmith, an Internet café and multimedia software store in Harvard Square (twenty miles south of Jack Kerouac's hometown), to stock a single copy. Cybersmith is gone now, too, and New Media magazine itself folded a couple of months ago.

So, naturally, I cast a jaded eye upon the opening page of Orpheus Emerged, this new Jack Kerouac e-book, wherein the publisher welcomed me to "what we promise is one of the first steps into the future of reading." Well, the good news and the bad news are one and the same: we're back to where we started. But at least we're back. Orpheus Emerged is a pale shadow of the Kerouac e-book we made six years ago—and yet I'm here to praise it. Why? Because the folks at LiveREADS are being good bodhisattvas and walking the righteous path.

Most people in established book-publishing houses use the phrase "CD-ROM" as if it were interchangeable with the phrase "Richard Nixon." They had a bad experience and, like the rest of humanity, they want to forget it. But they shouldn't be forgetting, because almost all the mistakes of the CD-ROM era will be repeated in the "e-book era," only worse, and if you remember what happened the first time around you might actually know what to do the next time.

I don't know what the LiveREADS folks remember, but they do have the good old CD-ROM spirit—the enchantment with new-media possibilities that was the best thing about the first run at digital publishing. I like that. I get a good feeling from the company, in particular from its recognition that "electronic book" is a form of its own that can and should be more than text on a screen. In Orpheus Emerged, most of that recognition is manifest in aggressive, retro-ish graphic design and repeated use of a handful of photographic elements. With only a few exceptions, the interactive annotation of the fiction is limited to brief, text-based glossary notes and biographical entries—useful, but a pedestrian application of the technology. (I assume that budgetary constraints, not inspiration or desire, explain the product's limitation.) Orpheus does contain two bits of "rich media"—an audio reading and an excerpt from a film on the Beats. The interesting point here is that it does not in fact "contain" them at all; they reside on remote Web sites to which you are taken to see and hear them. This suggests many interesting possibilities for the future, but it's disappointing in the here and now: because these items need to be downloaded, their quality is vastly inferior to what could have been included today on a CD-ROM. A better design would have offered users a choice of quality depending on the speed of their network connection. And since Orpheus has the ability to rub the magic lantern of the Internet, one wonders why it does not link to any of the numerous resources on Kerouac and the Beats available on the Web.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy flipping through Orpheus Emerged (bizarre déjà vu though it was at times), and detailed comparisons to a certain Kerouac e-book of yore wouldn't be fair. A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus cost a half-million dollars to make and sold for $50 a copy. Orpheus Emerged is a much more limited endeavor, and is quite fairly priced at $3.95. I recommend it (in the Adobe Acrobat eBook version).

I didn't realize where the old cowpath would lead me that night. I certainly didn't expect to time-travel on it. Orpheus Emerged wasn't the book I'd set out to buy—it wasn't even on paper. But in a sense it was the book I needed. It did unleash something. It reminded me why I cared enough about electronic publishing to give a big piece of my life to it years ago, and why I still care.

Most readers never saw the electronic books of the 1990s. That's because serious, well-produced CD-ROMs were too far ahead of their time—too far ahead of the software, the hardware, the digital economy itself. The general public may well believe "e-book" to be a brand-new, twenty-first-century idea. And indeed, for most of the potential audience, Orpheus Emerged will feel fresh and new and intriguing. If publishers embrace the new possibilities of "converging media" and accept the realities—that ground needs to be broken, that good production is expensive, that it won't be instantly profitable, that a slew of boring, overpriced titles will alienate the public—then electronic-multimedia books could indeed become the future of reading, or part of it. Just like they used to be.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte's Technology & Digital Culture conference.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Ralph Lombreglia (lombreglia@bigfoot.com) has been a contributor to Atlantic Unbound since 1996, when he originated the Digital Culture column. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and other publications, and has been collected in two books, Men Under Water (1991) and Make Me Work (1994). He teaches creative writing at Boston University and is a Web and multimedia consultant.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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