the complete review Quarterly
Volume I, Issue 3   --   August, 2000

On Online Alternatives

A Literary Saloon Dialogue

The Scene:

       The Literary Saloon never closes, and in the morning hours an odd mix of weary revellers, restless authors, and impatient businessmen can be found there, lingering over a last (or first) beer or a more conventional breakfast. The Literary Saloon is a welcome way station between home and office, or nightclub and family, especially in these hot summer months.
       It is a slow season, and the literary world is even quieter than usual. Discussion is muted, voices not raised over the barroom din (dull though even that is).
       A sits at the bar, sipping an espresso. B enters and sits down next to him, a few books under his arm, a pleased expression on his face. He orders a coffee and one of the Literary Saloon's standard breakfasts -- kippers, bagels, coffee and gin --, then turns to A.

The Dialogue:

B:    Good morning.
A:    Yes.
B:    Finished with breakfast already ?
A:    The hot weather makes an early riser out of me.
B:    You don't look quite ready for the day.
A:    Another espresso might do the trick. And you ? Not off to work yet ?
B:    It's a holiday of some sort. So I'm off to the beach, with a pile of books to idly pass the time.
A:    Sounds good. What books ?
B:    After careful consideration I chose two recent New York Review Books publications -- Richard Lewontin claiming that It Ain't Necessarily So and the collection India: A Mosaic. Never an easy choice to make, selecting reading material. I tend to read hardbacks at home -- the lugging seems a waste if one is moving about, since there are always lighter paperbacks to pick from -- but since I have some time and leisure I am willing to bear the greater burden and so I took these two volumes. I've been meaning to get to them for a while.
A:    Why these two ?
B:    Oh, there are a number of reasons. For one: though a faithful subscriber, I haven't been keeping up with my reading of The New York Review of Books.
A:    These are a substitute ?
B:    They are collections of pieces that have almost all appeared in the pages of the paper. So yes, a substitute of sorts. But they are also thematic compilations, the one centered around matters of modern biology, the other around India. There's something to be said for that. The Review itself offers variety in each issue, but sometimes more of the same is preferable.
A:    True enough. You know that many of the pieces collected here are available online, at The New York Review of Books' website ?
B:    Really ?
A:    Yes. For free, and quite easily found in their archive.
B:    Did I waste my money on the purchase of these books ?
A:    A question to consider. There are differences. Not all the pieces are available online -- the older ones haven't been archived yet, for example.
B:    Then with a little patience I could have found them all on that site ?
A:    The wait might have been a long one -- I don't know how quickly they are making the articles available online. And there are a few things that don't come from the Review itself and so, presumably, won't ever be found on their site. From the India book you wouldn't find the preface, or Arundhati Roy's introduction ...
B:    Though Roy's piece can be found in half a dozen variations on the web. I've seen it all over the place.
A:    And you wouldn't get the music CD that comes with the book, nor the explanatory notes.
B:    And the Lewontin volume ?
A:    You would be missing out on a bit more. Actually, only a small selection of the pieces is available online, at the moment. Then there's the introduction, of course, but that's minor. No, what you'd really miss are Lewontin's updates, epilogues in which he explains what has changed since he wrote the pieces -- and, in a few instances, some "exchanges", letters to the editor and Lewontin's marvelous replies.
B:    Those aren't online yet ?
A:    Surprisingly they are not.
B:    The books are still somewhat handier. Easier to carry than my laptop -- even the bulky hardcover editions -- and there is no need for an internet connection.
A:    But these titles are still interesting examples of the narrowing divide between finding one's reading material on the web or relying on the old fashioned bound-and-printed version. If you were interested in reading about these subjects while at home the temptation to read the pieces on your computer might be far greater than that to pick up these volumes.
B:    True, I suppose. You think the internet could displace these volumes ?
A:    Well, surely such collections are most at risk of being displaced. In this case the internet makes for a very good substitute. The articles on The New York Review of Books site can be accessed basically for free -- and, in fact, more articles on these same subjects are available there. You are not subject to the editors' whims and fancies. The internet-user can become the editor of his or her own collection.
    Certain aspects of the internet-site are clearly superior to the book-versions: for example, for reasons that are entirely unfathomable, the publishers of these two volumes have not included any sort of indices. Searching for a specific reference in these collections is thus, in many cases, actually easier on the internet, since the Review site has a decent search engine that will direct one closer to the information one seeks -- at least to the specific chapter that contains the sought reference -- and your browser should allow you to FIND any reference on a given page.
B:    That is one of the great advantages of presenting any sort of text in digital form -- it is easier to find specific words or references. Texts can effortlessly be searched. With the fast-improving technology better search-engines (or browsers) will soon lead one directly to the place in the text that one is looking for -- as they already can in many cases.
A:    Correct. It's what led me to find the articles at the New York Review of Books' site. Well, actually it was the reviews of these titles at the complete review that showed me the way .....
B:    A leading, edgy site. No wonder.
A:    But I did not need the fine folk from the complete review to point out what I was missing because of the missing indeces. I still find it curious that the publishers did away with them ...
B:    Perhaps they were admitting they could not compete.
A:    A bit early in the game to throw in the towel.
B:    The casual reader might not need indeces.
A:    I find that hard to imagine. They would have to be very casual not to care.
B:    There's a lot to be said for the books, though.
A:    Arguably there is more to be said for perusing the pieces on the internet. With the book you are basically limited to the pieces at hand, those bound between the covers. The Lewontin volume does offer more -- commentary, reaction, updates -- but an internet connection provides access to a great deal that can be useful as well. Various reviews of the book itself, for example, ...
B:    ... at the estimable complete review ...
A:    ... and elsewhere. More significantly, one can find additional information about the subject at hand. Open up another window on you browser and you can check the progress at the Human Genome Project, up to the minute. Or the latest articles from a wide variety of sources regarding the issues under discussion.
    These two books, dealing with a variety of complex issues, listing names, places, and concepts that readers may not be familiar or current with, cry out for easily accessible supporting reference material.
B:    The internet !
A:    Exactly.
B:    So I should toss these volumes aside and click on my computer.
A:    Not quite. Perusal of the books themselves serves as a good introduction. And, as I said, only parts of them -- a small part, in the case of Lewontin book, and more from India -- are accessible online. The internet is not a perfect substitute for them.
B:    Not yet.
A:    And not for a while, even if the entire contents were available there. There's a pleasure in the text that isn't quite the same when it is on the screen. I find The New York Review of Books's spread out articles -- they can go on for many pages -- hard to read on the computer. Turning paper pages turns out to be considerably easier than clicking NEXT PAGE every few lines.
B:    It's just how you are used to reading. Practice and you'll find the computer pages no different.
A:    I'm not so sure. I don't mind scrolling through a long text, but flipping fake pages is annoying.
B:    So for now the balance still favours hardcover (or paperback) and print over digital alternatives ?
A:    For now. But, as I said, books such as these are most in "danger". Making them available on the internet has too many obvious benefits. In the future sites where such books or article collections can be found (or assembled, form a variety of sites) will also be able to offer interactivity -- comments from other readers, additions by the author (the text can always be adjusted to the changing times, unlike fixed print), and links to other pertinent information. The book can never do that. For now these two volumes are probably still preferable. But they certainly shan't last far into the next century.
B:    The end of books as we know it ?
A:    Of certain types of books, absolutely. Others will survive in printed form -- fiction, above all, but other types of books as well. These do not need the connectivity that the internet offers, standing well on their own.
B:    Strange times.
A:    Exciting times. Care must be taken that the unique elements of the printed book are not lost in the rush to embrace the new, but overall the new technology will widen our horizons and opportunities immeasurably.
B:    I was looking forward to immersing myself in these books on the beach, without another care or thought, but you've made me dizzy with this talk.
A:    You sure it isn't the gin that's gone to your head ?
B:    Perhaps. Just in case ... I'll have another.
A:    Cheers.

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© 2000 the complete review Quarterly
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