The Whole Library Digitization Thing

I’ve been thinking recently about Google’s campaign to digitize the libraries of several major research universities, and so have a lot of other people.

I’m not sure if there’s really a threat here, at least not yet. Some writers and publishing industry types are very worried that the book biz is going down the same path as the music biz and the movie biz. But people don’t read books on their computers. At least not yet.

Will there be a time when it’s as pleasurable to sit with an e-book as it is to sit with a paper book? Sony has apparently developed an electronic reader that uses a new display technology that will utilize less battery power and will (eventually) realize the ‘dream’ of a little slab of electronics that will hold thousands of books that could be purchased cheaply (good for readers, bad for publishers), but still I wonder if that could ever take the place of a book.

Jonathan Franzen once wrote in an essay that he regards books as one of humankind’s greatest creations (I’m paraphrasing from memory here but I think it was in the very fine collection linked to above). I agree with him. Come to my house and you’ll see books everywhere. As my father-in-law once put it, books are on every flat surface in the house. I can’t imagine ever deriving the same pleasure from an electronic reader.

Although, to be fair, before I purchased my laptop (with it’s easy-on-the-eyes LCD) I never thought I’d do much reading on the computer at all. Now I can spend hours surfing blogs and reading newspaper and magazine articles.

That experience, though, does not make me think I’ll someday read a book on my computer. The way I read online is wholly different from the way I read a book. Online, I’m jumping around, following links, rarely finishing a whole piece.

Which raises another question: are we heading for a new literary form? Will the novel morph into an interconnected, multimedia narrative? I can almost imagine a novel online with a web interface, a non-linear story with flashbacks and tangents that could be read in conjunction with the main story line or as stand-alone features. Would such a ‘novel’ have any ending?

It seems all a little ‘Choose Your Own Adventure-ish’ to me right now, but interactive entertainment seems to be ‘where it’s at’ right now. Look at the Matrix storyline that incorporated a videogame. Look at what Lost is doing with websites and now a novel.