Going Into the Woods, by Christine Boese
The End of Books?New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1992.
I can't describe the effect Coover's article had in any way that makes sense to most folks. The Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year. I grew up in Alaska and the Solstice is a day for me to remember myself as an Alaskan while I am in the Lower 48. Every year I mark the Solstice with some unusual activity of unending duration, often alone, knowing family and friends are having some picnic or party that lasts all night, staying up with the Midnight Sun.
And wherever I have lived, the day has always been memorable, distinguished by coincidences and serendipity. Some of the most horrific experiences of my life also have happened on the Solstice. I survived an attempted rape and beating at midnight on a Solstice in Alaska in 1983. The folks at Governor's School who lived with me in the women's wing of the faculty dorm knew the story. Every summer about that time I suffered from flashbacks, screaming the hall awake in the night. Those were reason enough to stay up all night.
I picked up The New York Times Book Review in Little Rock in the afternoon, read the article over dinner, and sat down at my computer to write the first of my graduate school applications, to my first choice, the school I currently attend. I was on fire and worked until two or three in the morning, crafting an essay that was so unusual for the genre it would either get me in or laughed out of the room. There would be no in between.
I believed none of the conjectures about the End of Books. Rather, I saw the new medium as a kind of clay that, in inventive and gifted hands, could lead to a greater audience for books, in whatever form the words evolved into. One of my MFA professors tried to tell me I was on a mission to kill off books personally, echoing concerns of Sven Birkerts in Gutenberg Elegies. Hardly.
I may not wax poetic over the smell of binding glue (well, sometimes), but I live in a home overflowing with books. God knows my computer simply allows me space to have more, without the expense of shelving (or stealing milk crates). I have been inhaling the contents of books since the black box of literacy was opened for me in first grade. I could not live without them.
And I do sometimes resent my computer for locking the texts inside that compact space, so hard to reach in and grab in a moment's browsing, to splatter in the bathtub or turn translucent with suntan oil in the yard. To curse in the margins or turn yellow with a highlighter.
But Coover's topic is really the death of the novel, the intricately formed, often sprawling, often formulaic story. Many writers have challenged the linearity of novel, from Faulkner to more recently, Charles Baxter, whose First Light is written backwards, for instance. Many readers challenge linearity as well, starting from the back, skipping around.
Coover's article bears reading still, even if you didn't miss it first time around. Not because he is a prescient as Ted Nelson. He isn't. But if you are still trying to figure out exactly what parameters hypertext is directly challenging, and what that might eventually mean, Coover enunciates the issues well and in understandable terms.