Literature has always relied on technology. We wouldn’t have the Dead Sea Scrolls had the ancients failed to invent papyrus, just as we wouldn’t have “The Da Vinci Code” if Gutenberg hadn’t come out with movable type.
Technology has also abetted literature by enabling the wealth and leisure that fueled the rise of the popular press -- and allowed for such luxuries as a class of professional writers and a large campus establishment devoted to the literary arts.
It is important to bear in mind that technology is not the sworn enemy of literature as Apple prepares (according to frantic rumor) to unveil its much-anticipated new tablet computer on Jan. 27. Still, the collision of technology and literature in this case may well prove explosive.
A well-designed Apple tablet, embedded in the right business model, has the potential to blow up the book business as we know it, ultimately upending the whole rickety edifice of publishers, booksellers and agents, much as the digital revolution (and Apple) have done to the music business.
It’s been clear for a while, of course, that the future of text is digital. And an Apple tablet wouldn’t be the first of its kind. Amazon’s Kindle is almost synonymous with dedicated electronic readers, and others have appeared recently as well.
But these devices are relatively primitive. By comparison, the iPhone and its iPod Touch sibling are already remarkably good reading machines while doing so much more as well. Equipped with a 10-inch screen and sold for the right price, the formidable tablet will force competitors to ramp up their game.
These new tablets will give ink on paper a powerful nudge into history’s wastebasket, helping to remake not just books but newspapers, magazines and other material we’ve traditionally consumed in print.
The result will be a seismic change in the literary culture. Ubiquitous tablets will make books cheaper and more readily available, even as physical bookstores follow Tower Records into oblivion. Lending libraries will have to figure out a new mission; the time is not far off when the typical 10-year-old will have the equivalent of the Library of Alexandria in her backpack.
Tablets will also change the nature of books. The reliably fixed quality of ink on paper is being replaced by the protean nature of bytes, introducing an element of impermanence into the written record of civilization, as some scholars have already complained.
Shorter is always better on screen, and so expect shorter books. Many nonfiction works are too long anyway -- think of all those cinder-block-sized biographies -- in part because right now there’s no mechanism for bringing to market anything between a magazine article (perhaps 5,000 words) and a short book (perhaps 70,000). Tablets will allow the length of works to be tailored more closely to the need.
More important, an Apple tablet will offer not just text but also sound, images and video -- which will all be commonplace in books someday, in a balance we can’t yet foresee. This may undermine the primacy of text, but the text in most books today is far from sacred, and a little multimedia can do a world of good in most genres -- in how-to books, for example. Think back to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages; even when text was sacred, people liked a little multimedia on the side.
These changes may actually help revive the mysterious and forever expiring beast known as literature. Perhaps your tablet will let you read poetry -- or hear the poet reading it. The novel, that workhorse of middle-class, middlebrow literary taste, will evolve to suit the new form, just as in the 19th century its structure and length evolved to accommodate serialization and various pricing and packaging schemes. The cellphone novels of Japan show that it is already doing so.
On the other hand, it’s not clear how anyone will get paid for writing, or what will take the place of the existing commercial system, which produces ample dreck but a lot of great stuff as well, often written and edited by experienced professionals with families to support and bills to pay. It may get our egalitarian juices flowing to think that the digital revolution will open up this world, but a literary culture in which everyone is a writer and no one is an editor is likely to leave all of us poorer.
Certainly, authors and publishers should not count on any kind of legal or technological copy protection to assure that their works aren’t reproduced without royalties. The music business has already shown us the futility of “digital-rights management.” Yet it may also show the way to other pricing models. Are music subscription services -- Rhapsody, for example -- really so different from the subscription libraries that supported novel writing in 19th century England?
A similar return to the past may be necessary to preserve the system of paying advances to writers. In the 18th century, after all, books were sometimes financed by selling investors shares in future profits (one imagines an online marketplace for just such a system today) or by selling advance subscriptions to book buyers. Foundations, universities and rich folks may also emerge as a greater source of patronage.
In the digital future, “publishing” may mostly mean self-publishing. Yet it’s also likely that gatekeepers will spring up -- people or firms whose taste and imprimatur have value in the marketplace. They may even function the way old-time publishers like Scribner’s once did, running the digital equivalent of magazines, publishing houses and retail stores under a single brand.
“The history of literature,” Alvin Kernan reminds us, “has always been closely involved with such worldly things as royal courts, patronage, copyright laws, middle-class leisure, nationalism, democratic educational systems, steam-driven rotary presses, free markets and Linotype machines.”
Sparks always fly when technology and literature get together. We can expect that this time, as usual, they will burn down the old and light up the new.
Daniel Akst, a former columnist and technology editor at the Los Angeles Times, is a writer in New York’s Hudson Valley.