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CYBERCULTURE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL AKST

Here's Hoping the Net Will Relink Us to the Lost Art of Reading

May 20, 1996|DANIEL AKST

Regular readers of this column know that I spend much of my time cultivating a lucrative career as a writer of villanelles, sestinas and other obscure poetic forms. The rest of my day is, of course, spent online, and so one question never very far from /my mind is: What role will the Internet play in the future of reading and writing?

There's no question that the spreading popularity of electronic mail has revived, if not the art of letter writing, then at least the habit of written communication between individuals. E-mail isn't as voluptuous as a handwritten letter on an actual piece of paper, what with all that penmanship and ink, the tearing sound of opening the envelope and so forth, but the telephone killed all that long before the Internet did, and anyway, e-mail has considerable charms of its own.

The real issue is whether the Internet will reverse or accelerate the decline of reading as a nourishing habit, pastime and passion. The question is highlighted for me by the rush to put computers into schools, where they probably aren't needed and may even do more harm than good, as Yale computer scientist David Gelernter observes in an essay you can read for yourself at http://ng.netgate.net/~challenger/unplug.htm.

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The problem is that books aren't many people's idea of fun. Too often, reading is something done with memos at work or, at night, just before sleep. Any other wakeful reading that manages to occur is squeezed in between commuting, exercise, shopping, child rearing, television and, yes, the Internet. Everyone I know schedules time for hiking, movies or dinner with friends, but nobody seems to set aside any time for books.

For millions of Americans, reading is as alien as opera. In "The Death of Literature" (Yale University Press, 1990), an excellent book that is not as hysterical as its title, Alvin Kernan reports that "something like 60% of adult Americans apparently never read a book, and most of the rest read only one book a year on the average."

Ever the optimist, I'm hopeful that the Internet, by striking a blow against TV and making an ocean of information available online, can help stem the rising tide of what might be called aliteracy, even if it means putting up with a certain amount of hyperfiction.

First of all, in the long run the Internet and other computer technologies ought to lower the cost of distributing books and periodicals--not necessarily by eliminating paper, but instead by eliminating shipping, storage, print overruns, returns and other

inefficiencies. With the printer located in your bookstore--or even, when it comes to magazines, in your house--reading material should get cheaper, and price does matter.

A host of free books is already available on the Internet, and I don't just mean the ravings of would-be authors unable to afford vanity press fees. The works of Shakespeare, Milton, Austen and other masters can be had free of charge electronically, mainly because these works are beyond copyright. (An easy way to find them is through http://www.bookwire.com, about which more later.)

Personally, I find electronic texts most useful for searching. I'm certainly not going to do any extended reading on screen, and printing isn't economical. On my fast laser printer, for instance, it costs about 2.5 cents to print a page, which means $7.50 for a 300-page book. Classics are often available for less, to say nothing of public libraries.

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Magazines are a different story, and already a number of Internet-only periodicals have sprung up. Most famously, Michael Kinsley has been hired by Microsoft to start a new magazine to be published mainly on the World Wide Web. Meanwhile, my favorite of this genre is Salon, a relative newcomer to the Net that is filled with interesting essays, author interviews and the like. Unlike many Internet "zines," Salon pays competitive rates to writers and appears to get what it pays for. Salon is at http://www.salon1999.com/

Other periodicals that have been constrained by the high cost of publishing a traditional literary magazine have broken loose on the Internet. The best example I know of is the Mississippi Review at http://sushi.st.usm.edu/mrw, which publishes twice a year on paper but monthly on the World Wide Web. The Web edition has brought to the Internet big names such as John Barth, Elizabeth Tallent, Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie and Ian McEwan, and fresh young talent as well.

Also worth a visit among literary sites is GNN's Story Cafe, at http://www.gnn.com/gnn/meta/book/. And don't forget Yahoo; if you're interested in authors generally, just go to http://www.yahoo.com and search "authors." Choose the selection "Arts:Humanities:Literature:Authors" from the list of search results and then choose the kind of author you're looking for. Or just search by name. A few authors even have their own home pages; for example, Madison Smartt Bell has one at http://www.goucher.edu/~mbell/

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