To Kindle or not to Kindle?

About a year or so ago there was an amusing bit of writing circulating on the Web that deconstructed Shakepeare's "Hamlet" into a series of Facebook-styled newsfeeds.

Written by Sarah Schmelling, the piece imagined humorous status updates and activities "Hamlet" characters might have posted on Facebook, had there been such a thing in 14th-century Denmark.

Some of the more cheeky zingers included, "Hamlet wonders if he should continue to exist. Or not"; "Ophelia removed 'moody princes' from her interests"; and "Ophelia joined the group Maidens Who Don't Float."

That last activity from Ophelia is now the title of a book by Schmelling, published by Penguin Books, that gives this Facebook news-update treatment to other literary works. And, in a fine bit of technology synergy, that book just so happens to be available for Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle.

So goes the state of the book industry in this, the golden age of technology -- clever memes are reducing fine literature into Facebook news-feed updates and Kindle e-readers are replacing our beloved, dog-eared paperbacks.

These technology-influenced changes to what we read and how we read have book experts and sociologists raising an alarm about whether all of this technology is really a good thing. A panel at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival in New York City that included Schmelling recently tackled this topic.

To be fair, there have been and likely always will be humorous or gimmick-oriented books on the market to appeal to the demographic that doesn't have the time or inclination to sit down and devote itself to a more weighty tome -- or to inspire those folks to take themselves a bit less seriously. And Kindles have been available for nearly two years now and people are still, so far, buying paper-based books.

Schmelling acknowledged that her humorous approach to literature is not meant to re-create the experience of actually reading the work of literature she pokes fun at. "I certainly don't think it would replace anything," she said.

However, she argued that technology and the Internet have been positive influences on great books, citing them as handy tools for building social networks around the appreciation of literature. She noted the existence of Facebook-based and other applications that allow people to share what is on their "virtual" bookshelves and exchange thoughts and ideas about books that way.

"People are recommending books to each other that might not be on the best-seller lists," Schmelling said.

Panelist John Freeman, editor of the London-based literary journal Granta and author of the book "The Tyranny of Email," said he doesn't exactly have a problem with virtual bookshelves, but with how the Internet is affecting our ability to consume and appreciate what's on them.

Freeman, who cut his teeth as a newspaper journalist and book critic, has a more hands-on approach to how literature should be consumed and marketed that eschews the general trends in the publishing industry -- he prefers actual books to using an e-reader, and markets Granta with public appearances and live events rather than going the Twitter or Facebook routes.

Though he acknowledged that many might see his methods and opinions as a little quaint, Freeman made a good point -- it's harder to get into the "meditative state" a person needs to become fully absorbed in a good book if one becomes too used to consuming information on the fly.

"The newspaper used to come every day," he said. "Now you look on The New York Times Web site every 43 minutes and it's refresh, refresh, refresh. The literary world doesn't work that way."

Panelist Dwight Garner, former editor of The New York Times Book Review and author of "Read Me," also expressed concern about how the fast pace of consuming information on the Web is "fragmenting" people's attention spans. However, he provided evidence that people are able to find a time and place for both reading continuous updates on a favorite blog and curling up with a good book.

While it would seem that people are less conditioned to sit down with a longer novel if they're used to reading on the Web, research has found that the interest in literary reading has increased 4 percent in the past five years, Garner said. This shows that even as technology is changing the game for the book industry, people are still "cleaning out a space for literature," he said.

I must admit here that my personal views fall somewhere between Freeman's purist stance and Garner's more pragmatic one -- I don't have a Kindle, and though the weight of books in many a carry-on bag is likely responsible for a chronic shoulder injury, I am not sure if I will ever relent and replace them with a gadget.

On the other hand, I do post on Facebook, e-mail and text-message obsessively, and find that these activities are affecting my attention span for reading longer works, including the contemporary literature that has always been such a joy and comfort to me. I worry about that, although it hasn't stopped me so far from cutting back on these activities.

Perhaps a lesson of how literature and technology can find a happy medium is ultimately found back where we started, with Schmelling's humorous "Hamlet" piece. The item appeared on the Web site of McSweeneys, a literary journal spun off from a nonprofit organization started in San Francisco by award-winning author and memoirist Dave Eggers.

That organization -- 826 National -- is devoted to setting up free tutoring and writing instruction for kids aged six to 18 and to encouraging them to appreciate literature and write creatively. 826 National also works with local schools and teachers in its seven locations to help get students excited about writing, and produces student writing, film and other creative projects.

If an organization devoted to getting kids to appreciate literature and create it themselves sees fit to poke fun at Hamlet using the world's largest online social network as its theater, perhaps there is a place where even the most stubborn, bespectacled literary purist as well as the most rabid, Kindle-wielding techno-enthusiast can find some common ground.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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