Brave new words

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2005, 12:00am

IN 1985, I bought my first computer and printer from Apple. There was no hard drive and your files had to be saved to a 3.5 inch diskette.

The word-processing program was MacWord and a hot feature was that you could type to the end of a line and the text would automatically wrap itself around onto the next! No more cutting and pasting or, worse, retyping 300 pages of a manuscript to add a word on page 25. And the dot matrix printer was so much quieter than an electric portable typewriter.

All of this cost about US$4,000. Bought on credit, it was worth every cent. This was world technology - the future of literary creation.

Twenty years on, that early desktop is long-since obsolete, and novels spew forth from computers around the world with frightening regularity. There are days when the urge to turn back the clock to that primitive era before the internet, connectivity, downloadable books, print-on-demand and the websites of literary marketing is almost overwhelming.

In 1985, a round-trip economy flight from Hong Kong to the east coast of the US cost about US$2,300. Today, the trip can be made for less than half that. If you went to Britain or the US and bought books they could be shipped to Hong Kong by sea and it would still cost less than buying locally, where many titles weren't available. But you savoured every edited word, browsed bookstores before the days of chains all carrying the same titles, and authors weren't subject to online focus groups of readers who rubbish books on the basis of cover design.

Globalisation is the 21st century's legacy. For contemporary literature, it's meant that we write and read faster than Guttenberg - or Steve Jobs, for that matter - ever imagined possible.

E-book technology is not yet universal, at least not for serious contemporary literature, but the day will surely come. What will it mean if books exist only in cyberspace and not in the real world?

Globalisation has also meant that anyone can be an author nowadays. The only requirement is to write something and post it on the internet. If you know your six degrees of separation - or are an astute spammer - you might draw a larger readership than a book from a small literary press with a print run of a thousand copies in hardback.

Editors at most major publishing houses no longer edit. Instead, they acquire titles and ensure marketability. In a globalised world, so-called global English reigns. It's a language that increasingly embraces the fewest keystrokes. Grammar may well be rendered meaningless, with more people speaking and writing English as a second language.

As frightening as all this seems, is it not simply a matter of adjusting our literary vision? Books always have been disposable. Much of popular writing is read and then forgotten. Good literature and its legacy hasn't died, despite the acceleration of book production and consumption. By extension, it shouldn't matter if books disappear and the number of so-called authors rises.

That hardback books destroy trees is so obvious it hardly needs stating. Yet US publishers still insist on 'cloth', that quaintly antiquated name for hardbacks. Serious literary works must appear in cloth to rate the best quality reviews. Then the books are pulped or remaindered almost as quickly as they appeared.

Perhaps cyberspace is the best place for the world's literature, allowing us to save trees and other natural resources. Internet publishing is this era's vox populi, nothing more.

What's new is the democratisation of editorial selection. Globalisation means writing can be disseminated from anywhere in the world. Although wealthy countries still dominate editorial selection, there are fewer barriers to intellectual influence by poorer nations.

In his book The Global Soul, Pico Iyer describes a visit to the Hong Kong home of an English school friend and his wife. Their flat, he says, is 'furnished almost entirely with suitcases (a PRIORITY label around the handle of one, the stickers of hotels all over another)'. He's given a guest bedroom, vacated on his arrival by 'two MBAs from Los Angeles, who'd just flown over for the weekend (on our hostess's unused frequent flier awards)'.

The flat is in Admiralty. 'You've a mini-airport on the ground floor, where you can check in for all Cathay flights,' his host says. 'There's a Seibu department store on Level Two, where you can buy everything you want. My bank's next to the elevator, and the Immigration Office is next to my office. You never really have to leave the building.'

It's a privileged existence Iyer describes, but one many will recognise.

We must take care not to shut out the world, never leaving the building, for if we do then all the magnificent literature will make no impact on such lost humanity.

To read is a joy, and it can be done from a desktop computer anywhere without becoming separated from the real world. To read with courage and vision is the privilege of globalisation, but it is a choice we must make.

So, turn off the internet from time to time. But forget the typewriter, and don't insist that the book must last forever. These will pass and the world won't be any worse for it.