nettime's avid reader on Sun, 30 Nov 2003 21:01:17 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Eco: Vegetal and mineral memory: The future of books



Vegetal and mineral memory: The future of books

The city of Alexandria played host on 1 November to the renowned Italian 
novelist and scholar *Umberto Eco*, who gave a lecture in English, on 
varieties of literary and geographic memory, at the newly opened Bibliotheca 
Alexandrina. /Al-Ahram Weekly/ publishes the complete text of the lecture 

*WE HAVE THREE TYPES OF MEMORY*. The first one is organic, which is the memory 
made of flesh and blood and the one administrated by our brain. The second is 
mineral, and in this sense mankind has known two kinds of mineral memory: 
millennia ago, this was the memory represented by clay tablets and obelisks, 
pretty well known in this country, on which people carved their texts. 
However, this second type is also the electronic memory of today's computers, 
based upon silicon. We have also known another kind of memory, the vegetal 
one, the one represented by the first papyruses, again well known in this 
country, and then on books, made of paper. Let me disregard the fact that at 
a certain moment the vellum of the first codices were of an organic origin, 
and the fact that the first paper was made with rugs and not with wood. Let 
me speak for the sake of simplicity of vegetal memory in order to designate 

This place has been in the past and will be in the future devoted to the 
conservation of books; thus, it is and will be a temple of vegetal memory. 
Libraries, over the centuries, have been the most important way of keeping 
our collective wisdom. They were and still are a sort of universal brain 
where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know. 
If you will allow me to use such a metaphor, a library is the best possible 
imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is 
viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her 
mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way 
the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we know 
that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them.

To build, or better to rebuild, today one of the greatest libraries of the 
world might sound like a challenge, or a provocation. It happens frequently 
that in newspaper articles or academic papers some authors, facing the new 
computer and internet era, speak of the possible "death of books". However, 
if books are to disappear, as did the obelisks or the clay tablets of ancient 
civilisations, this would not be a good reason to abolish libraries. On the 
contrary, they should survive as museums conserving the finds of the past, in 
the same way as we conserve the Rosetta Stone in a museum because we are no 
longer accustomed to carving our documents on mineral surfaces.

Yet, my praise for libraries will be a little more optimistic. I belong to the 
people who still believe that printed books have a future and that all fears 
/à propos/ of their disappearance are only the last example of other fears, 
or of milleniaristic terrors about the end of something, the world included.

In the course of many interviews I have been obliged to answer questions of 
this sort: "Will the new electronic media make books obsolete? Will the Web 
make literature obsolete? Will the new hypertextual civilisation eliminate 
the very idea of authorship?" As you can see, if you have a well-balanced 
normal mind, these are different questions and, considering the apprehensive 
mode in which they are asked, one might think that the interviewer would feel 
reassured when your answer is, "No, keep cool, everything is OK". Mistake. If 
you tell such people that books, literature, authorship will not disappear, 
they look desperate. Where, then, is the scoop? To publish the news that a 
given Nobel Prize winner has died is a piece of news; to say that he is alive 
and well does not interest anybody -- except him, I presume.

*WHAT I WANT TO DO TODAY* is to try to unravel a skein of intertwined 
apprehensions about different problems. To clarify our ideas about these 
different problems can also help us to understand better what we usually mean 
by book, text, literature, interpretation, and so on. Thus you will see how 
from a silly question many wise answers can be produced, and such is probably 
the cultural function of naive interviews.

Let us start with an Egyptian story, even though one told by a Greek. 
According to Plato in /Phaedrus/ when Hermes, or Theut, the alleged inventor 
of writing, presented his invention to the Pharaoh Thamus, the Pharaoh 
praised such an unheard of technique supposed to allow human beings to 
remember what they would otherwise forget. But Thamus was not completely 
happy. "My skillful Theut," he said, "memory is a great gift that ought to be 
kept alive by continuous training. With your invention people will no longer 
be obliged to train their memory. They will remember things not because of an 
internal effort, but by mere virtue of an external device."

We can understand the preoccupation of Thamus. Writing, like any other new 
technological invention, would have made torpid the human power which it 
pretended to substitute and reinforce. Writing was dangerous because it 
decreased the powers of mind by offering human beings a petrified soul, a 
caricature of mind, a mineral memory.

Plato's text is ironical, naturally. Plato was writing down his argument 
against writing. But he was also pretending that his discourse was told by 
Socrates, who did not write (since he did not publish, he perished in the 
course of the academic fight.) Nowadays, nobody shares Thamus's 
preoccupations for two very simple reasons. First of all, we know that books 
are not ways of making somebody else think in our place; on the contrary, 
they are machines that provoke further thoughts. Only after the invention of 
writing was it possible to write such a masterpiece of spontaneous memory as 
Proust's/ A la Recherche du Temps Perdu/. Secondly, if once upon a time 
people needed to train their memories in order to remember things, after the 
invention of writing they had also to train their memories in order to 
remember books. Books challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotise it. 
However, the Pharaoh was instantiating an eternal fear: the fear that a new 
technological achievement could kill something that we consider precious and 

I used the verb /to kill/ on purpose because more or less 14 centuries later 
Victor Hugo, in his /Notre/ /Dame de Paris/, narrated the story of a priest, 
Claude Frollo, looking in sadness at the towers of his cathedral. The story 
of /Notre Dame de Paris/ takes places in the XVth century after the invention 
of printing. Before that, manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of 
literate persons, and the only thing to teach the masses about the stories of 
the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even 
the deeds of national history or the most elementary notions of geography and 
natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or 
stones), was provided by the images of a cathedral. A mediaeval cathedral was 
a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV programme that was supposed to tell 
people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their 
eternal salvation.

Now, however, Frollo has on his table a printed book, and he whispers "ceci 
tuera cela": this will kill that, or, in other words, the book will kill the 
cathedral, the alphabet will kill images. The book will distract people from 
their most important values, encouraging unnecessary information, free 
interpretation of the Scriptures, insane curiosity.

During the sixties, Marshall McLuhan wrote his book /The Gutenberg Galaxy/, 
where he announced that the linear way of thinking supported by the invention 
of printing was on the verge of being substituted by a more global way of 
perceiving and understanding through TV images or other kinds of electronic 
devices. If not McLuhan, then certainly many of his readers pointed their 
finger first at a TV screen and then to a printed book, saying "this will 
kill that". Were McLuhan still among us, today he would have been the first 
to write something like "Gutenberg strikes back". Certainly, a computer is an 
instrument by means of which one can produce and edit images, certainly 
instructions are provided by means of icons; but it is equally certainly that 
the computer has become first of all an alphabetic instrument. On its screen 
there run words and lines, and in order to use a computer you must be able to 
write and to read.

Are there differences between the first Gutenberg Galaxy and the second one? 
Many. First of all, only the archaeological word processors of the early 
eighties provided a sort of linear written communication. Today, computers 
are no longer linear in so far as they display a hypertextual structure. 
Curiously enough, the computer was born as a Turing machine, able to make a 
single step at a time, and in fact, in the depths of the machine, language 
still works in this way, by a binary logic, of zero-one, zero-one. However, 
the machine's output is no longer linear: it is an explosion of semiotic 
fireworks. Its model is not so much a straight line as a real galaxy where 
everybody can draw unexpected connections between different stars to form new 
celestial images at any new navigation point.

*YET IT IS EXACTLY AT THIS POINT* that our unravelling activity must start 
because by hypertextual structure we usually mean two very different 
phenomena. First, there is the textual hypertext. In a traditional book one 
must read from left to right (or right to left, or up to down, according to 
different cultures) in a linear way. One can obviously skip through the 
pages, one -- once arrived at page 300 -- can go back to check or re- read 
something at page 10 -- but this implies physical labour. In contrast to 
this, a hypertextual text is a multidimensional network or a maze in which 
every point or node can be potentially connected with any other node. Second, 
there is the systemic hypertext. The WWW is the Great Mother of All 
Hypertexts, a world-wide library where you can, or you will in short time, 
pick up all the books you wish. The Web is the general system of all existing 

Such a difference between text and system is enormously important, and we 
shall come back to it. For the moment, let me liquidate the most naive among 
the frequently asked questions, in which this difference is not yet so clear. 
But it will be in answering this first question that we will be able to 
clarify our further point. The naive question is: "Will hypertextual 
diskettes, the internet, or multimedia systems make books obsolete?" With 
this question we have arrived at the final chapter in our this-will-kill-that 
story. But even this question is a confused one, since it can be formulated 
in two different ways: (a) will books disappear as physical objects, and (b) 
will books disappear as virtual objects?

Let me first answer the first question. Even after the invention of printing, 
books were never the only instrument for acquiring information. There were 
also paintings, popular printed images, oral teaching, and so on. Simply, 
books have proved to be the most suitable instrument for transmitting 
information. There are two sorts of book: those to be read and those to be 
consulted. As far as books-to-be-read are concerned, the normal way of 
reading them is the one that I would call the "detective story way". You 
start from page one, where the author tells you that a crime has been 
committed, you follow every path of the detection process until the end, and 
finally you discover that the guilty one was the butler. End of the book and 
end of your reading experience. Notice that the same thing happens even if 
you read, let us say, a philosophical treatise. The author wants you to open 
the book at its first page, to follow the series of questions he proposes, 
and to see how he reaches certain final conclusions. Certainly, scholars can 
re-read such a book by jumping from one page to another, trying to isolate a 
possible link between a statement in the first chapter and one in the last. 
They can also decide to isolate, let us say, every occurrence of the word 
"idea" in a given work, thus skipping hundreds of pages in order to focus 
their attention only on passages dealing with that notion. However, these are 
ways of reading that the layman would consider as unnatural.

Then they are books to be consulted, like handbooks and encyclopaedias. 
Encyclopaedias are conceived in order to be consulted and never read from the 
first to the last page. A person reading the /Encyclopaedia Britannica/ every 
night before sleeping, from the first to the last page, would be a comic 
character. Usually, one picks up a given volume of an encyclopaedia in order 
to know or to remember when Napoleon died, or what is the chemical formula 
for sulphuric acid. Scholars use encyclopaedias in a more sophisticated way. 
For instance, if I want to know whether it was possible or not that Napoleon 
met Kant, I have to pick up the volume K and the volume N of my 
encyclopaedia: I discover that Napoleon was born in 1769 and died in 1821, 
Kant was born in 1724 and died in 1804, when Napoleon was already emperor. It 
is therefore not impossible that the two met. In order to confirm this I 
would probably need to consult a biography of Kant, or of Napoleon, but in a 
short biography of Napoleon, who met so many persons in his life, a possible 
meeting with Kant can be disregarded, while in a biography of Kant a meeting 
with Napoleon would be recorded. In brief, I must leaf through many books on 
many shelves of my library; I must take notes in order to compare later all 
the data I have collected. All this will cost me painful physical labour.

Yet, with hypertext instead I can navigate through the whole net-cyclopaedia. 
I can connect an event registered at the beginning with a series of similar 
events disseminated throughout the text; I can compare the beginning with the 
end; I can ask for a list of all words beginning by A; I can ask for all the 
cases in which the name of Napoleon is linked with the one of Kant; I can 
compare the dates of their births and deaths -- in short, I can do my job in 
a few seconds or a few minutes.

Hypertexts will certainly render encyclopaedias and handbooks obsolete. 
Yesterday, it was possible to have a whole encyclopaedia on a CD-ROM; today, 
it is possible to have it on line with the advantage that this permits cross 
references and the non-linear retrieval of information. All the compact 
disks, plus the computer, will occupy one fifth of the space occupied by a 
printed encyclopaedia. A printed encyclopaedia cannot be easily transported 
as a CD-ROM can, and a printed encyclopaedia cannot be easily updated. The 
shelves today occupied at my home as well as in public libraries by metres 
and metres of encyclopaedias could be eliminated in the near future, and 
there will be no reason to complain at their disappearance. Let us remember 
that for a lot of people a multivolume encyclopaedia is an impossible dream, 
not, or not only, because of the cost of the volumes, but because of the cost 
of the wall where the volumes are shelved. Personally, having started my 
scholarly activity as a medievalist I would like to have at home the 221 
volumes of Migne's /Patrologia Latina/. This is very expensive, but I could 
afford it. What I cannot afford is a new apartment in which to store 221 huge 
books without being obliged to eliminate at least 500 other normal tomes.

Yet, can a hypertextual disk or the WWW replace books to be read? Once again 
we have to decide whether the question concerns books as physical or as 
virtual objects. Once again let us consider the physical problem first.

Good news: books will remain indispensable, not only for literature but for 
any circumstances in which one needs to read carefully, not only in order to 
receive information but also to speculate and to reflect about it. To read a 
computer screen is not the same as to read a book. Think about the process of 
learning a new computer programme. Usually, the programme is able to display 
on the screen all the instructions you need. But usually users who want to 
learn the programme either print the instructions and read them as if they 
were in book form, or they buy a printed manual. It is possible to conceive 
of a visual programme that explains very well how to print and bind a book, 
but in order to get instructions on how to write, or how to use, a computer 
programme, we need a printed handbook.

After having spent 12 hours at a computer console, my eyes are like two tennis 
balls, and I feel the need of sitting down comfortably in an armchair and 
reading a newspaper, or maybe a good poem. Therefore, I think that computers 
are diffusing a new form of literacy, but they are incapable of satisfying 
all the intellectual needs they are stimulating. Please remember that both 
the Hebrew and the early Arab civilisations were based upon a book and this 
is not independent of the fact that they were both nomadic civilisations. The 
Ancient Egyptians could carve their records on stone obelisks: Moses and 
Muhammad could not. If you want to cross the Red Sea, or to go from the 
Arabian peninsula to Spain, a scroll is a more practical instrument for 
recording and transporting the /Bible/ or the /Koran/ than is an obelisk. 
This is why these two civilisations based upon a book privileged writing over 
images. But books also have another advantage in respect to computers. Even 
if printed on modern acid paper, which lasts only 70 years or so, they are 
more durable than magnetic supports. Moreover, they do not suffer from power 
shortages and black-outs, and they are more resistant to shocks.

Up to now, books still represent the most economical, flexible, wash-and-wear 
way to transport information at a very low cost. Computer communication 
travels ahead of you; books travel with you and at your speed. If you are 
shipwrecked on a desert island, where you don't have the option of plugging 
in a computer, a book is still a valuable instrument. Even if your computer 
has solar batteries, you cannot easily read it while lying in a hammock. 
Books are still the best companions for a shipwreck, or for the day after the 
night before. Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, 
have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the 
hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors.

*TWO NEW INVENTIONS*, however, are on the verge of being industrially 
exploited. One is printing on demand: after scanning the catalogues of many 
libraries or publishing houses a reader can select the book he needs, and the 
operator will push a button, and the machine will print and bind a single 
copy using the font the reader likes. This will certainly change the whole 
publishing market. It will probably eliminate bookstores, but it will not 
eliminate books, and it will not eliminate libraries, the only places where 
books can be found in order to scan and reprint them. Simply put: every book 
will be tailored according to the desires of the buyer, as happened with old 

The second invention is the e-book where by inserting a micro- cassette in the 
book's spine or by connecting it to the internet one can have a book printed 
out in front of us. Even in this case, however, we shall still have a book, 
though as different from our current ones as ours are different from old 
manuscripts on parchment, and as the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 is 
different from the last Penguin edition. Yet, up to now e-books have not 
proved to be commercially successful as their inventors hoped. I have been 
told that some hackers, grown up on computers and unused to browsing books, 
have finally read great literary masterpieces on e-books, but I think that 
the phenomenon remains very limited. In general, people seem to prefer the 
traditional way of reading a poem or a novel on printed paper. E-books will 
probably prove to be useful for consulting information, as happens with 
dictionaries or special documents. They will probably help students obliged 
to bring with them ten or more books when they go to school, but they will 
not substitute for other kinds of books that we love to read in bed before 
sleep, for example.

Indeed, there are a lot of new technological devices that have not made 
previous ones obsolete. Cars run faster than bicycles, but they have not 
rendered bicycles obsolete, and no new technological improvements can make a 
bicycle better than it was before. The idea that a new technology abolishes a 
previous one is frequently too simplistic. Though after the invention of 
photography painters did not feel obliged to serve any longer as craftsmen 
reproducing reality, this did not mean that Daguerre's invention only 
encouraged abstract painting. There is a whole tradition in modern painting 
that could not have existed without photographic models: think, for instance, 
of hyper-realism. Here, reality is seen by the painter's eye through the 
photographic eye. This means that in the history of culture it has never been 
the case that something has simply killed something else. Rather, a new 
invention has always profoundly changed an older one.

To conclude on this theme of the inconsistency of the idea of the physical 
disappearance of books, let us say that sometimes this fear does not only 
concern books but also printed material in general. Alas, if by chance one 
hoped that computers, and especially word processors, would contribute to 
saving trees, then that was wishful thinking. Instead, computers encourage 
the production of printed material. The computer creates new modes of 
production and diffusion of printed documents. In order to re- read a text, 
and to correct it properly, if it is not simply a short letter, one needs to 
print it, then to re-read it, then to correct it at the computer and to 
reprint it again. I do not think that one would be able to write a text of 
hundreds of pages and to correct it properly without reprinting it many 

Today there are new hypertextual poetics according to which even a 
book-to-read, even a poem, can be transformed to hypertext. At this point we 
are shifting to question two, since the problem is no longer, or not only, a 
physical one, but rather one that concerns the very nature of creative 
activity, of the reading process, and in order to unravel this skein of 
questions we have first of all to decide what we mean by a hypertextual link.

Notice that if the question concerned the possibility of infinite, or 
indefinite, interpretations on the part of the reader, it would have very 
little to do with the problem under discussion. Rather, that would have to do 
with the poetics of a Joyce, for example, who thought of his book /Finnegans 
Wake/ as a text that could be read by an ideal reader affected by an ideal 
insomnia. This question concerns the limits of interpretation, of 
deconstructive reading and of over-interpretation, to which I have devoted 
other writings. No: what are presently under consideration are cases in which 
the infinity, or at least the indefinite abundance of interpretations, are 
due not only to the initiative of the reader, but also to the physical 
mobility of the text itself, which is produced just in order to be 
re-written. In order to understand how texts of this genre can work we should 
decide whether the textual universe we are discussing is limited and finite, 
limited but virtually infinite, infinite but limited, or unlimited and 

First of all, we should make a distinction between systems and texts. A 
system, for instance a linguistic system, is the whole of the possibilities 
displayed by a given natural language. A finite set of grammatical rules 
allows the speaker to produce an infinite number of sentences, and every 
linguistic item can be interpreted in terms of other linguistic or other 
semiotic items -- a word by a definition, an event by an example, an animal 
or a flower by an image, and so on and so forth.

Take an encyclopaedic dictionary, for example. This might define a dog as a 
mammal, and then you have to go to the entry mammal, and if there mammals are 
defined as animals you must look for the entry animal, and so on. At the same 
time, the properties of dogs can be exemplified by images of dogs of 
different kinds; if it is said that a certain kind of dog lives in Lapland 
you must then go to the entry on Lapland to know where it is, and so on. The 
system is finite, an encyclopaedia being physically limited, but virtually 
unlimited in the sense you can circumnavigate it in a spiral-like movement, 
/ad infinitum/. In this sense, certainly all conceivable books are comprised 
by and within a good dictionary and a good grammar. If you are able to use an 
English dictionary well you could write /Hamlet/, and it is by mere chance 
that somebody did it before you. Give the same textual system to Shakespeare 
and to a schoolboy, and they have the same odds of producing /Romeo and 

Grammars, dictionaries and encyclopaedias are systems: by using them you can 
produce all the texts you like. But a text itself is not a linguistic or an 
encyclopaedic system. A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite 
possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe. If I utter the 
sentence, "This morning I had for breakfast...", for example, the dictionary 
allows me to list many possible items, provided they are all organic. But if 
I /definitely/ produce my text and utter, "This morning I had for breakfast 
bread and butter", then I have excluded cheese, caviar, pastrami and apples. 
A text castrates the infinite possibilities of a system. /The Arabian/ 
/Nights /can be interpreted in many, many ways, but the story takes place in 
the Middle East and not in Italy, and it tells, let us say, of the deeds of 
Ali Baba or of Scheherazade and does not concern a captain determined to 
capture a white whale or a Tuscan poet visiting Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

Take a fairy tale, like /Little Red Riding Hood/. The text starts from a given 
set of characters and situations -- a little girl, a mother, a grandmother, a 
wolf, a wood -- and through a series of finite steps arrives at a solution. 
Certainly, you can read the fairy tale as an allegory and attribute different 
moral meanings to the events and to the actions of the characters, but you 
cannot transform /Little Red Riding Hood/ into /Cinderella/. /Finnegans Wake/ 
is certainly open to many interpretations, but it is certain that it will 
never provide you with a demonstration of Fermat's last theorem, or with the 
complete bibliography of Woody Allen. This seems trivial, but the radical 
mistake of many deconstructionists was to believe that you can do anything 
you want with a text. This is blatantly false.

Now suppose that a finite and limited text is organised hypertextually by many 
links connecting given words with other words. In a dictionary or an 
encyclopaedia the word /wolf /is potentially connected to every other word 
that makes up part of its possible definition or description (wolf is 
connected to animal, to mammal to ferocious, to legs, to fur, to eyes, to 
woods, to the names of the countries in which wolves exist, etc.). In /Little 
Red Riding Hood/, the wolf can be connected only with the textual sections in 
which it shows up or in which it is explicitly evoked. The series of possible 
links is finite and limited. How can hypertextual strategies be used to 
"open" up a finite and limited text?

The first possibility is to make the text physically unlimited, in the sense 
that a story can be enriched by the successive contributions of different 
authors and in a double sense, let us say either two-dimensionally or 
three-dimensionally. By this I mean that given, for instance, /Little Red 
Riding Hood/, the first author proposes a starting situation (the girl enters 
the wood) and different contributors can then develop the story one after the 
other, for example, by having the girl meet not the wolf but Ali Baba, by 
having both enter an enchanted castle, having a confrontation with a magic 
crocodile, and so on, so that the story can continue for years. But the text 
can also be infinite in the sense that at every narrative disjunction, for 
instance, when the girl enters the wood, many authors can make many different 
choices. For one author, the girl may meet Pinocchio, for another she may be 
transformed into a swan, or enter the Pyramids and discover the treasury of 
the son of Tutankhamen.

This is today possible, and you can find on the Net some interesting examples 
of such literary games.

*AT THIS POINT *one can raise a question about the survival of the very notion 
of authorship and of the work of art, as an organic whole. And I want simply 
to inform my audience that this has already happened in the past without 
disturbing either authorship or organic wholes. The first example is that of 
the Italian /Commedia dell'arte/, in which upon a /canovaccio/, that is, a 
summary of the basic story, every performance, depending on the mood and 
fantasy of the actors, was different from every other so that we cannot 
identify any single work by a single author called /Arlecchino servo di due/ 
/padroni/ and can only record an uninterrupted series of performances, most 
of them definitely lost and all certainly different one from another.

Another example would be a jazz jam session. We may believe that there was 
once a privileged performance of /Basin Street Blues/ while only a later 
recorded session has survived, but we know that this is untrue. There were as 
many /Basin Street Blues /as there were performances of it, and there will be 
in future a lot of them that we do not know as yet, as soon as two or more 
performers meet again and try out their personal and inventive version of the 
original theme. What I want to say is that we are already accustomed to the 
idea of the absence of authorship in popular collective art in which every 
participant adds something, with experiences of jazz-like unending stories.

Such ways of implementing free creativity are welcome and make up part of the 
cultural tissue of society.

Yet, there is a difference between implementing the activity of producing 
infinite and unlimited texts and the existence of already produced texts, 
which can perhaps be interpreted in infinite ways but are physically limited. 
In our same contemporary culture we accept and evaluate, according to 
different standards, both a new performance of Beethoven's Fifth and a new 
Jam Session on the Basin Street theme. In this sense, I do not see how the 
fascinating game of producing collective, infinite stories through the Net 
can deprive us of authorial literature and art in general. Rather, we are 
marching towards a more liberated society in which free creativity will 
coexist with the interpretation of already written texts. I like this. But we 
cannot say that we have substituted an old thing with a new one. We have 

TV zapping is another kind of activity that has nothing to do with watching a 
movie in the traditional sense. A hypertextual device, it allows us to invent 
new texts that have nothing to do with our ability to interpret pre-existing 
texts. I have tried desperately to find an instance of unlimited and finite 
textual situations, but I have been unable to do so. In fact, if you have an 
infinite number of elements to play with why limit yourself to the production 
of a finite universe? It's a theological matter, a sort of cosmic sport, in 
which one, or The One, could implement every possible performance but 
prescribes itself a rule, that is, limits, and generates a very small and 
simple universe. Let me, however, consider another possibility that at first 
glance promises an infinite number of possibilities with a finite number of 
elements, like a semiotic system, but in reality only offers an illusion of 
freedom and creativity.

A hypertext can give the illusion of opening up even a closed text: a 
detective story can be structured in such a way that its readers can select 
their own solution, deciding at the end if the guilty one should be the 
butler, the bishop, the detective, the narrator, the author or the reader. 
They can thus build up their own personal story. Such an idea is not a new 
one. Before the invention of computers, poets and narrators dreamt of a 
totally open text that readers could infinitely re-compose in different ways. 
Such was the idea of /Le/ /Livre/, as extolled by Mallarmé. Raymond Queneau 
also invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to 
compose, from a finite set of lines, millions of poems. In the early sixties, 
Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced to 
compose different stories, and Nanni Balestrini gave a computer a 
disconnected list of verses that the machine combined in different ways to 
compose different poems. Many contemporary musicians have produced musical 
scores by manipulating which one can compose different musical performances.

All these physically moveable texts give an impression of absolute freedom on 
the part of the reader, but this is only an impression, an illusion of 
freedom. The machinery that allows one to produce an infinite text with a 
finite number of elements has existed for millennia, and this is the 
alphabet. Using an alphabet with a limited number of letters one can produce 
billions of texts, and this is exactly what has been done from Homer to the 
present days. In contrast, a stimulus-text that provides us not with letters, 
or words, but with pre-established sequences of words, or of pages, does not 
set us free to invent anything we want. We are only free to move 
pre-established textual chunks in a reasonably high number of ways. A Calder 
mobile is fascinating not because it produces an infinite number of possible 
movements but because we admire in it the iron-like rule imposed by the 
artist because the mobile moves only in the ways Calder wanted it to move.

At the last borderline of free textuality there can be a text that starts as a 
closed one, let us say, /Little Red Riding Hood/ or /The Arabian Nights/, and 
that I, the reader, can modify according to my inclinations, thus elaborating 
a second text, which is no longer the same as the original one, whose author 
is myself, even though the affirmation of my authorship is a weapon against 
the concept of definite authorship. The Net is open to such experiments, and 
most of them can be beautiful and rewarding. Nothing forbids one writing a 
story where Little Red Riding Hood devours the wolf. Nothing forbids us from 
putting together different stories in a sort of narrative patchwork. But this 
has nothing to do with the real function and with the profound charms of 

*A BOOK OFFERS US A TEXT *which, while being open to multiple interpretations, 
tells us something that cannot be modified. Suppose you are reading Tolstoy's 
/War and Peace/: you desperately wish that Natasha will not accept the 
courtship of that miserable scoundrel Anatolij; you desperately wish that the 
marvellous person who is Prince Andrej will not die, and that he and Natasha 
will live together forever. If you had /War and Peace/ on a hypertextual and 
interactive CD-ROM, you could rewrite your own story according to your 
desires; you could invent innumerable "War and Peaces", where Pierre Besuchov 
succeeds in killing Napoleon, or, according to your penchants, Napoleon 
definitely defeats General Kutusov. What freedom, what excitement! Every 
Bouvard or Pécuchet could become a Flaubert!

Alas, with an already written book, whose fate is determined by repressive, 
authorial decision, we cannot do this. We are obliged to accept fate and to 
realise that we are unable to change destiny. A hypertextual and interactive 
novel allows us to practice freedom and creativity, and I hope that such 
inventive activity will be implemented in the schools of the future. But the 
already and definitely written novel /War and Peace/ does not confront us 
with the unlimited possibilities of our imagination, but with the severe laws 
governing life and death.

Similarly, in /Les Misérables/ Victor Hugo provides us with a beautiful 
description of the battle of Waterloo. Hugo's Waterloo is the opposite of 
Stendhal's. Stendhal, in /La Charteuse de Parme/, sees the battle through the 
eyes of his hero, who looks from inside the event and does not understand its 
complexity. On the contrary, Hugo describes the battle from the point of view 
of God, and follows it in every detail, dominating with his narrative 
perspective the whole scene. Hugo not only knows what happened but also what 
could have happened and did not in fact happen. He knows that if Napoleon had 
known that beyond the top of mount Saint Jean there was a cliff the 
cuirassiers of General Milhaud would not have collapsed at the feet of the 
English army, but his information in the event was vague or missing. Hugo 
knows that if the shepherd who had guided General von Bulow had suggested a 
different itinerary, then the Prussian army would have not arrived on time to 
cause the French defeat.

Indeed, in a role-play game one could rewrite Waterloo such that Grouchy 
arrived with his men to rescue Napoleon. But the tragic beauty of Hugo's 
Waterloo is that the readers feel that things happen independently of their 
wishes. The charm of tragic literature is that we feel that its heroes could 
have escaped their fate but they do not succeed because of their weakness, 
their pride, or their blindness. Besides, Hugo tells us, "Such a vertigo, 
such an error, such a ruin, such a fall that astonished the whole of history, 
is it something without a cause? No... the disappearance of that great man 
was necessary for the coming of the new century. Someone, to whom none can 
object, took care of the event... God passed over there, /Dieu a passé/."

That is what every great book tells us, that God passed there, and He passed 
for the believer as well as for the sceptic. There are books that we cannot 
re-write because their function is to teach us about necessity, and only if 
they are respected such as they are can they provide us with such wisdom. 
Their repressive lesson is indispensable for reaching a higher state of 
intellectual and moral freedom.

I hope and I wish that the /Bibliotheca Alexandrina/ will continue to store 
this kind of books, in order to provide new readers with the irreplaceable 
experience of reading them. Long life to this temple of vegetal memory.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: