Conferees ponder the shape of books in the electronic age


Classicists, Shakespearean scholars, technological wizards and lovers of all media converged on the MIT campus for "Transformations of the Book," a conference on current and impending developments in book design hosted by MIT's Media in Transition Project.

The two-day gathering, held October 24-25, was organized by literature professors David Thorburn, director of the Communications Forum, and Peter Donaldson, the Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities.

The general goal of "Transformation of the Book" was to explore how printed books -- those robust designs from the time when readers wandered lonely as clouds, soft leather artifacts in hand -- are being transformed by electronic media, in which all the wandering has to be done sitting down, mouse in hand.

Professor Thorburn opened the conference with an unambiguous celebration of the printed book and a prediction about its continuing relevance. "Periods of transition, in which emerging systems and media appear to be displacing or transforming older forms, are also intervals of powerful retrospective awareness," he said. "The next two days will point in two directions: if we are likely to learn of digital media, we are also certain to renew our wonder at the remarkable virtues, the complexity and subtlety, of the book."

The day's first session, "Classics Digitized," illustrated the irony of applying new technologies to traditional forms, of dramatically changing the look and feel of books in hopes of engaging a wider audience for original texts.

Peter Robinson, a senior research fellow in the International Institute for Electronic Library Research at De Montfort University, began the discussion with a wry overview of his role as editor of The Wife of Bath's Prologue on CD-ROM, the first major publication of The Canterbury Tales Project.

"That first book of which we are so proud is a failure," Mr. Robinson declared provocatively as a screen showed a facsimile of The Wife of Bath's Prologue. "After 600 years, Chaucer deserves better."

To be sure, Mr. Robinson and his staff had great success, if exhaustiveness is the standard. They catalogued all the verbal images in The Prologue. They offered 16,000 spellings of various words ("you can lose yourself in the black hole which is spelling," he quipped). The CD-ROM offers readers millions of hypertext links among 30 editions and 88 witnesses of The Prologue. From the opening stream onward, they succeeded in giving the reader a sense of authentic space and scrolling, by using boxes within boxes.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue is "something of a box of wonders," remarked Mr. Robinson. "And we're still trying to find a use for it. We provide very little guidance as to what it all means. And with so austere a policy, we will limit our readership to experts," he lamented.

The next phase of The Canterbury Tales Project will duplicate "all we've done," said Mr. Robinson. "But now we'll ask, 'who is going to read it? And how are they going to read it?'"

Gregory Crane, an associate professor of classics at Tufts University and editor-in-chief of the Perseus Project, an online archive of classical materials, opened the "who's reading this stuff?" lens further. His subject -- books talking to each other -- explored the limitless interactivity among text, hypertext, readers and "humanities folks."

"The near-collapse of the NEH forced us all to consider our relationship with the wider world, with both the mass audience and the elite," he said.

The second session, "The Expanded Book," moderated by Frank Urban-owski, director of the MIT Press, featured William Mitchell, MIT professor of architecture and media arts and sciences and dean of the school of architecture and planning, and Robert Stein, founder of Voyager Co.

Dean Mitchell walked to the podium waving a regular old book. It was his book -- City of Bits -- which was simultaneously published by MIT Press and on the World Wide Web. He used an extended gardening metaphor to illustrate his experience of the difference between the print and the electronic publication of his book.

Once a book is "planted" online, "the electronic garden has to be tended constantly. It has to be weeded, pruned, and replanted. The Web is unstable; sites die, sites change, new sites appear all the time. The extended textual performance goes on and on," he said, comparing that to the finality of print publication for an author.

Professor Mitchell's current project, The Palladio Project, is named for the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio whose Four Books of Architecture still serve as a text.

A gasp of wonder greeted his showing of a "page" from the Palladio Project. On one screen were three different representations of a Palladio villa floor plan based on the original 16th-century woodcut, a 3-D model of the villa and a current photo of the building in its countryside locale -- all of which could be rotated 360 degrees.

"The Novel in Cyberspace," an evening session, was moderated by Janet Murray, author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Ms. Murray is a senior research scientist in MIT's Center for Educational Computing Initiatives and teaches Interactive Narrative in the Film and Media Studies Program.

The session's two speakers are leading hypertext writers. Shelley Jackson is the author of the hypertextual "novel," Patchwork Girl, and Michael Joyce's hypertext fictions include the novels Afternoon and Twilight: A Symphony.

Ms. Jackson delivered a partly autobiographical multimedia lecture dramatizing her belief that the nonlinear, always incomplete qualities of hypertext mirror the unfinished, improvisational nature of the self. Mr. Joyce spoke about the importance and continuing relevance of hypertext fiction to modern experience.

In a Saturday session, "Film as Digital Document," Professor Donaldson, director of the Shakespeare Interactive Archive, presented both the promises and the problems of teaching Shakespeare's plays through the old medium of a "charismatic professor."

"You might get a virtuoso performance. But Shakespeare's texts have a rich afterlife among editors, readers, directors and teachers. We wanted to solve the problem of how to make performance material immediately relevant to studying Shakespeare," he said.

Echoing several other professors' concerns, Professor Donaldson added that assigning over-busy students to watch a full-length feature film was neither practical nor even desirable sometimes.

Enter the Shakespeare Interactive Archive, which Professor Donaldson demonstrated by clicking on a film clip of Lawrence Olivier's performance as Hamlet to contrast it, one click later, with Mel Gibson's version. Laser discs, though "obsolescent," made this rich comparison possible.

In a slightly rueful aside, Professor Donaldson noted how the consumption of new media by institutions could have its darker aspect. "The Shak-speare project was a complete success for me, for the students and for the beta testers. But institutions didn't invest in it -- the technology wasn't new stuff," he said.

The entire conference will be available in summary format on the Web at http://media-in-transition.mit.edu>.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 29, 1997.


Topics: Literature, languages and writing, Media Lab, Technology and society, Special events and guest speakers

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