by Lance Olsen


A simple premise I take to be pretty self-evident about the universe around me: American culture has virtually no memory, no sense of the past.

Our attentions spans are as cages of dexedrined flies in nose cones of Tomahawk missiles strapped to Saturn rockets, nine million pounds of thrust behind us to get us the hell away from yesterday.

We're a daydream nation. We're an Alzheimer's province in the United State of Amnesia.

Ours is a pioneer consciousness that doesn't like to look over its shoulder, check out the review mirror, environmentally, militarily, culturally, because objects back there are always larger than they appear.

We want the short-term fix. We want the up-and-coming star on the cultural horizon. We want next week's flash-trend yesterday.

We live in a pluriverse where, as the narrator of Gibson's Neuromancer knew, "fads swept the youth . . . at the speed of light; entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly."

We're a country that wants to find out what's around the next corner, over the next mountain range, who's gonna top the pops next week, and how much cash we can make off it.

Love Canal, human radiation testing, Newt Gingrich.

If we maintain any sense of history, it's usually one shot through with a golden nimbus of nostalgia . . . the one where American Graffiti represents the fifties, Star Trek the sixties, where Forrest Gump, an idiot, becomes our national hero for an hour and a half on the silver screen.

Or, as poet Charles Potts writes:

Because our assholes are behind us,
We'd hoped to leave our shit there too,
And move like Manifest Destiny,
Always forward into paradise.
Witness my sweet, hard-working, well-meaning student who, after listening to the sociohistorical lectures I delivered in my Survey of American Literature course, studied his notes diligently, and wrote with sureness and poise during his final exam that the Civil War took place between 1964 and 1968 at Columbia University at roughly the same time Sigmund Freud published The Interruption of Dreams.

The Good Life precludes a look back at what we've left in our somnambulant wake. It precludes a sense of context, a genuine sense of understanding, the idea of that rearview mirror.

Nor, of course, is that student of mine alone in his historico-phobia, his MDS, his Mnemonic Deficiency Syndrome.

No way.

That's my point.

The guy's a walking symptom. He's a manifestation of our destiny. He has his hands full trying to navigate the house of mirrors, the garden of forking paths, that comprises his contemporary multidimensional reality. The last thing he can worry about is what happened last week, last year, let alone before he was born, before his parents were.

His cerebral RAM is in sync with MTV's rotation schedule. His mind's a cathode-ray tube . . .

Which is fine, which is hunky-dory, which is downright dream-machine--so long, that is, as he doesn't grow up to be a writer with aspirations toward the innovative, toward the fringe, toward the alternative, since his disinterest in all history, literary history included, will probably lead him, along with so many I see around me every day whose novels I review, to reinvent the narrative wheel James Joyce discovered in 1922, Laurence Sterne in the eighteenth century, Rabelais in the sixteenth.

Or so long as he doesn't grow up to be an editor, publisher, or literary critic, since his diachronic cultural disinterest will probably lead him smack into a kind of synchronic bibliocentrism, just as prevalent and quite possibly as unwholesome as any ethnocentrism you've ever encountered, about what the book should be and do.

For my student (I sound like I'm picking on him, and I'm really not, I really like the guy, so I'll let him loose after this), a book has been and done one thing.

The reality, however, multidimensional or otherwise, is just the opposite. The book has been and done various things at various times in various places in various ways.

Five thousand years ago, baked clay tablets in Mesopotamia recorded deeds to land and other business records. Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans used the inner bark of the papyrus plant for books, pasting sheets together in strips sometimes 144 feet long. The codex, made up of several sheets of vellum, or the treated skin of lambs, folded into a section called a gathering, which could then be sewed into something resembling our contemporary book, though hand-written, every one different from every other, kicked around for centuries after its appearance in 300 AD.

The Chinese practiced a simple form of printing over 1000 years ago, and there seems to have been some sort of forerunner to the printed book in Holland. Gutenberg, of course, developed his version in Germany during the 1440s and 1450s, and it reached England in 1476 when William Caxton set up shop at Westminster, more than 30,000 different books generated within the first fifty years after those first presses started running. By the 1800s, printing had evolved or devolved (depending on your point of view) into a mechanical trade rather than a handicraft, and by the 1900s the book had become mass-produced, hundreds of thousands of copies of a single one published.

Today, in America alone, about 45,000 books are published each year, 4500 of them novels, and they show up in about 30,000 bookstores across the country. Someone like John Grisham's law-firm novels sell more than 4.5 million copies in hardcover alone, while most writers and publishers consider sales of even a few thousand a jaw-dropping, lip-slathering success. And, in addition to those hardcovers, there are paperbacks, turned out by the French for years in Europe but, from our perspective, growing from American dime novels and British penny dreadfuls that surfaced during the nineteenth century and flourished after the Second World War.

And now . . .


And now all this has changed again, and changed radically, over the last five or eight years with the proliferation of electronic media, especially the home computer, modem, and emergence of the World Wide Web.

Imagine that. No. Really. Imagine it. Fairly tangible atoms of documentation and relaxation have morphed into ephemeral and informational bits at a rate of shift fast as that cage-full of dexedrined flies in the Tomahawk. It's utterly amazing, really, the stuff of science fiction, and here we are living in the middle of it, a world that makes Gibson's look a little drab, a little frayed around the digital matrix, shockingly adaptable species that we are, thinking: been there, done that, so what's new?

Time, then, for a second simple premise: Just as every age gets the literature it deserves, so too does every age get the idea of the book it deserves.

Books have been wax tablets and silk. They've been clay and sheep skin. They've been scrolls and paperbacks. And now they have begun to transmogrify once more in some exciting and, at least to trad readers, unnerving directions.

First you have conventionally bound books in experimental form, like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic fiction The Watchmen (1986), or Derek Pell's Assassination Rhapsody (1989), or Art Spiegelman's Maus (1986, 1992), which represent bibliographic world-eating engines. Looking back not only to the underground comix from the sixties, but also to the surrealist collage novels from the twenties, they combine everything from dialogue and cartoons to police reports, fake autobiographies, encyclopedia entries, coffee cup stains, and magazine profiles.

Second you have fairly traditional books in electronic form, such as those which appear at the Bibliobytes Web site (), where you can browse the first chapter of a Spider Robinson novel or Harlan Ellison story free, and then, if you like what you read, send your credit-card number through encrypted message to the publisher and download your choice in the print-size and format you like. Or those which appear at the On-Line Book Page Web site (, where you can read and download what interests you--everything from a host of banned books to Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905)--at no cost.

And third you have new forms of books in electronic form, especially the hypertext often generated by the Storyspace program that allows the user to create and link fields of info at will and to retrieve that info nonsequentially, something like shuffled electronic index cards. Many of these are available for browsing and purchasing from Eastgate Systems (, and include Michael Joyce's landmark creation, Afternoon (1987), and John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse (1992) which fuses text, music, and graphics.

These last two electronic manifestations of the book are, if you stop to think about it, some of the most environmentally friendly ones, too. Richard Brautigan once wondered aloud "if what we are publishing now is worth cutting down trees to make paper for." That's a great question. Digital publishing not only has the ability to take out a fair number of middlepeople, typesetter to printer, PR troops to distributors, from the reading equation, thereby drastically reducing--or even doing away with--the notion of cost in text production, but it also has the ability to accomplish this in a manner that disturbs not a single tree, spits not a single sulfate into the atmosphere, involves only electronic recycling.

And in a manner that will be increasingly comfortable to partake of. It won't be long before, for the price of a pair of Adidas, you can purchase a leather-bound (or, if you prefer, ersatz leather-bound) computer that looks like a book, smells like a book, and feels like a book. Open it to reveal two back-lit displays. Insert a credit-card-like slab in place of a disk. Curl up in your bed. And read in any font, type-size, or layout that suits your fancy. Without paper. With a minimal environmental footstep.

In any case, what we're seeing as the book enters a new cyberformational stage in its evolution is the enactment of deconstruction, not as some nifty series of pyrotechnic abstractions by Derrida &Co., but in the very means of text-creation itself. "Every novel should have a beginning, a muddle, and an end," Peter de Vries once said. Well, at the end of this century, it's all muddle, all movement toward nonlinear, nonsequential, unstable, multimedia events that confuse the traditional book with television and stereo, blending static images, sounds, and even film clips with processed text.

Thus do we move, too, toward a new sort of interactive education and a new kind of library where every document in existence becomes part of a virtual universal repository that can be accessed by anyone and to which anyone can make links.

This is the land the postmodern book, the electronically illuminated manuscript for our time, the book our age deserves, and . . .


And here's where I should begin to conclude, where the metaphorical fife and drum should pick up on my propaedeutic soundtrack, but I'm feeling pretty inconclusive these days, pretty unilluminated about the manuscript. So, in keeping with the alternative spirit of this literary zone, I'd like to end with ten question-clusters stemming from what I've just said, rather than one answer-site, invite you to think along with me vigilantly about yesterday's tomorrow:
  1. If anyone can, and anyone does, publish in cyberspace, where will the quality of publication go? Will digital democracy soon become another term for the cultural slobocracy Erza Pound always thought it really was under its sheepish clothing? If not, why not? Does anyone really want to know what everyone thinks about anything? Where does the idea of literary value go? Where should it go? How do we monitor it? How will we find it, if we should wish to? And, if we shouldn't, what exactly are we reading for in the first place?

  2. Is the electronic ether in fact a new worldwide cafe, a new global meeting ground for, among others, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the alternativized? Or is it only the simulacrum of community populated by isolated aliases and posers fostered by a society that's increasingly uncomfortable about interacting one-on-one in the meatverse? Do our bodies, as they do when we fry before the tube, become no more than prosthetic devices for our electron-fricasseed minds?

  3. What happens to our culture's conception of the author and authorship if books become multimedia collaborative events, almost like infinite encyclopedias, where it is virtually and literally impossible to know where one creative hand leaves off, another picks up?

  4. And who, if anyone, gets paid, and for what? What happens to the flesh-and-bone writer, if even the most popular can no longer make a living from his or her craft? Will creative writing by necessity become a mild avocation rather than a rampant addiction, as it certainly is becoming for many of us this late in the century, because of sociohistorical economic configurations? Is this situation really any different from any other point in history? If so, how? And related to this, will the idea of copyright, the author's thumbprint, survive? Can it? Should it? In a webbed world, can we even phrase the question in the same terms we used to?

  5. What's happened to the reality studio of cyberspace in the face of that increasingly quaint myth that information wants to be free? Information, clearly, is not free to most Netsurfers, no matter what it may want to be, and it will probably become even less so over the next few years, given the current economic context and political forecast. So are we Netsurfers less anarchic technohackers than just some more wingless workers in the unconscious antfarm of a burgeoning entertainment industry? If not, why not?

  6. Why do we feel it incumbent upon us to assert that information wants to be free (the basis, after all, of that American Ur-narrative, the First Amendment) in cyberspace, when, in fact, the Internet is a global series of electronic connections, not limited to the geographical borders of the United States, and hence the idea of information wanting to be free (along with the First Amendment) amounts to little more than a local ordinance in the computerized beyond?

  7. Certainly the conventional hardcover book will be around for a long, long time, side-by-side with the electronic versions I just mentioned, but will the proliferation of possibilities of what the book is and can be lead to greater cultural (and hence, eventually, governmental) decentralization, or, ultimately, a push (as we are currently seeing with pornography on the Internet) toward great cultural (and hence governmental) control? Why does it seem to most Americans to be okay to contemplate censoring materials in cyberspace that would never be censored on the printed page?

  8. What happens to humanities departments, to the very idea of reading as a communal activity, if hard-copy books evaporate into electronic hypertextual ones that each reader can and does read differently from every other reader? Do such departments become our eccentric equivalent of medieval monasteries, entrusted merely to housing the productions of the past?

  9. What happens to the idea of education? Will it become more interactive and hence more captivating for students, bringing them to digital books like cockroaches to spilled cereal . . . or just another version of commodified television with MTV-ized rhythms, surfaces, and shine, all form and less and less reflective content?

  10. And . . . finally, finally . . . the advent of the Net, especially the Web, was supposed to herald a brave new world, a fresh way of perceiving, but has it in fact done so? Is it the paradise Charles Potts says our Manifest Destiny always wants us to believe we're moving toward? Or is it rather, at least here, at least now, actually a lot slower and visually less snappy than television and film, a lot more expensive than we ever thought it would be, a lot less interesting at an audio-level than radio or CDs, and, so far, more distracting and hard on the eyes than traditional print? If so, where in the world, or out of it, are we going, and why?