Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Future of the Page

A story in Sunday’s New York Times brought me back to the idea of microfilm and the machines used to read it. Five years ago, I did a lot of research for an anthology of Latino Literature in the microfilm rooms of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Sterling has a full complement of microfilmed, Spanish-language southwestern newspapers from the United States Newspaper Project, where much Mexican-American literature was published between 1880 and 1910.

After holding my hand on the button for an hour, I discovered that I could put the machine on automatic and the pages would scroll by at the pace I had selected. I spent about twelve hours on two successive days reading poems, short stories and criticism. I could stop it when I wanted, print out an image, and then resume from where I had left off.

Unlike web pages, the new e-readers are based primarily on mimicking a book page, but this may not be necessary for certain types of reading in the future. Printed pages are static: the reader must add an active, internal movement to read and interpret the content (the making of what is absent—the images the words suggest—into something present: the images the reader supplies). But what if the new literature is written as continuous text, perhaps like Jack Kerouac’s scroll for On the Road? The e-reader could be set to a timed scrolling, and reading would become slightly more externally dynamic. The movies discovered this back in the thirties, when introductory and background information longer than a single screen would scroll or crawl. Perhaps the most famous of these is the opening to Star Wars, which embedded the movie in a printed story-telling tradition.

Such a device would bring reading closer to an oral tradition or half-way to an audiobook. Indeed, one could even add audio. The printed book (or the book-mimicking e-reader) and the scrolling e-reader would become very different reading experiences, even though the words would remain the same.

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