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MILAN – Will books, through the power of computers and the internet, be transformed into boundless “hypertextual structures” in which the reader is also author?

Today, two sorts of books exist: those to be read and those to be consulted. With books-to-be-read, you start at page 1, say, where the author tells you a crime has been committed. You follow until the end, when you discover who is guilty. End of book; end of reading experience. The same happens even if you read philosophy, say, Husserl. The author opens at the fist page, and follows a series of questions in order for you to see how he reaches his conclusions.

Encyclopedias, of course, are never meant to be read cover to cover. If I want to know whether it was possible that Napoleon met Kant, I pick up volumes K and N and discover that Napoleon was born in 1769 and died in 1821, and that Kant was born in 1724 and died in 1804. It is possible that the two met. To know precisely, I consult a biography of Kant. A biography of Napoleon, who met many people, might disregard a meeting with Kant; a biography of Kant would not.

Computers are beginning to change the reading process. With a hypertext, for example, I can ask for all the cases in which the name of Napoleon is linked with Kant. I can do my job in a few seconds. Hypertexts will render obsolete printed encyclopedia. But although computers are diffusing a new form of literacy, they are incapable of satisfying all the intellectual needs they stimulate.

Two inventions on the verge of being exploited may help computers begin to satisfy these needs. The first is a copying machine through which you scan library catalogues and the books of publishing houses. You select the book you need, push a button, and the machine will print and bind your copy. This will change all publishing; it will probably eliminate bookstores but not books. Books will be tailored to the desires of the buyer, as happened with old manuscripts.

The second invention is the e-book: by inserting a micro cassette into the spine or by connecting it with the Internet, you will have your book. But this book is as different as the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 is from the latest Penguin edition. Some people who say that they never read printed books are now reading, say, Kafka, in an e-book. On paper or on the electronic page, Kafka is the same for readers, if not from the point of view of eye doctors.

Books will survive because of their utilitarian value, but the creative process in which they arise may not. To understand why, we must draw a distinction between systems and text. A system is all the possibilities displayed by a given natural language. A finite set of grammatical rules allows you to produce an infinite number of sentences and every linguistic item can be interpreted in terms of other linguistic items, a word by a definition, an event by an example, and so on.

A text, however, reduces the infinite possibilities of a system to form a closed universe. Take the fairy tale 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 steps arrives at a solution. You can read the fairy tale as an allegory and attribute different morals to the events and characters, but you cannot transform Little Red Riding Hood into Cinderella.

But many internet programs suggest that a story is enriched by successive contributions. Take Little Red Riding Hood again. The first author proposes a starting situation (the girl enters the wood) and different contributors develop the story - the girl does not meet a wolf but, instead, meets Pinocchio. Both enter an enchanted castle. They may confront a magic crocodile. And so on. The notion of authorship is thrown in doubt.

This has sometimes happened in the past without disturbing authorship. With the Commedia dell’arte, every performance was different. We cannot identify a single work due to a single author. Another example is a jazz jam session. We may believe there is a privileged performance of “Basin Street Blues” because a recording survives. But there were as many Basin Street Blues as there were performances.

But there is a difference between infinite, unlimited texts and texts which can be interpreted in infinite ways but are physically limited. Take Tolstoy’s War and Peace: you wish Natasha to spurn Kuryagin; you desire that Prince Andrzej live so that Natasha and he can be together. Make “War and Peace” into a hypertext and you can rewrite the story: Pierre kills Napoleon or Napoleon defeats General Kutusov. What freedom! Everyone is Tolstoy!

In Les Miserables Victor Hugo provides us with a beautiful description of Waterloo. Hugo not only knows what happened but also what could have happened and didn’t. With a hypertextual program you could rewrite Waterloo so that Napoleon wins, but the tragic beauty of Hugo’s Waterloo is that things happen independent of the reader’s wishes. The charm of tragic literature is that we feel that its heroes could have escaped their Fate but do not because of weakness, or pride or blindness.

Besides, Hugo tells us “Such a fall which astonished the whole of History, is it something without a cause? No...Someone, to whom none can object, took care of that event, God passed over there.” That is what every great book tells us, that God passed over. There are books that we cannot rewrite because their function is to teach us about Necessity, and only if they are respected as they are can they provide us with such wisdom. Their repressive lesson is indispensable to reach a higher state of intellectual and moral freedom.

* A Umberto Eco was a novelist and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Bologna.