Lurking within Kevin Kelly’s various scenarios for the future of books on the internet is a good idea: as a first step toward saving the millions of books which are out of print but colorably copyrighted, Google is seeking to scan the collections at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Michigan and the New York Public Library. Eventually links, tags, and search receptivity will be added.
There are problems with acknowledging rights–Google is a for-profit and needs to share that profit–but one would hope that this doesn’t need to become Bleak Publishing House.
If it does, consider these ideas for digital literature:
1. The Literature Conservancy. While the courts decide the fate of the oceanic collection of out of print copyrighted books, what if a non-profit based on the Nature Conservancy negotiated for the digital rights to out of print works of special value to the culture? Updike’s Assorted Prose is one of these. It might gather these on the web with public domain works such as Shakespeare, which are ill-served by sites such as these. (Note the mousy type, the endless scroll, the distracting ads, the ugly masthead, and the absence of either definitional links in the body of the work or interpretive ones at its conclusion. Some works do have forums, though.)
2. Ejoyce! Ullysses. My first candidate for the literature conservancy. If it were embedded with explanatory links, Joyce’s masterpiece may be the only novel that is easier to read on screen. If you care about what precisely is being said in the print version–and there is something to be said for not being this uptight–you have to consult a second book and after a while it starts to feel like you’re helping ducks negotiate their divorce.
3. Lit Maps. Click on Mississippi, find fiction and poetry and literary non-fiction set there (or written by people who live there). A map of Cathedral Hill might uncover a Fitzgerald story–at least one had to be set here–or a poem by Jim Moore. A click on Bloomsbury would crash your computer.
4. Diaries. You could have two levels, published and unpublished, and search by year, place, or topic. I could discover that right around the time I was born, Christopher Isherwood visited a beatnik bar.
5. Essays and Criticism. Being inherently linked to the world, and naturally more bite-sized than novels, reviews are naturals for the web. I’m a huge fan of the shorter non-fiction of Orwell, Woolf, Kenneth Tynan.