The Internet may not be the mortal enemy of books

The Argument

An entirely new -- and impressively lively -- exchange of literary ideas and opinions is emerging in the electronic jungle.

August 01, 1999|By LAURA DEMANSKI | LAURA DEMANSKI,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Intuitively, it may seem that the Internet is delivering a catastrophic blow to the cultural currency of books. In some significant ways, this is true. The Web has become a formidable competitor for the leisure time of Americans and a distraction from literary concerns. Web surfing also makes a virtue of dipping in a toe and skipping along to the next entertainment. It discourages the sustained, close attention that literature rewards.

At the same time, the World Wide Web is home to a bustling, bristling, companionable, contentious literary community. Consider the millions of reader book reviews posted on this community's nerve center, Amazon.com, and countless smaller Internet forums.

What one finds on Amazon does not disprove cultural doomsaying about the decline of reading. It does, however, offer a new kind of measuring stick that goes beyond the numbers generated by pollsters and publishers. It abounds with qualitative evidence of readers pursuing literature passionately, and reveals something of how it feels to be a reader in the late 20th century.

My recent travels on Amazon suggest widespread emotional and aesthetic investment in books. Readers are excited about them and exacting toward them, sometimes merciless. But most striking is the satisfaction they clearly take in coming out from behind their books and into a thriving reading public.

Look up an in-print title on Amazon. You will land on an electronic page giving you a synopsis of the book, a selection of excerpted reviews from the national press, and anywhere from zero to scores of "reader comments."

These pieces of writing fall somewhere between criticism and consumer reports. Each review includes an obligatory rating of one to five stars, but the ardor comes through in the words readers post.

The folks at Amazon apply a democratic principle in posting reader reviews. (Some say too democratic; stories abound of fraudulent reviews by authors or publishers posing as admiring readers, and more malicious forms of imposture.) There are a few sensible criteria: no profanity, no one-word reviews, no spoilers. Meet them and your evaluation will be duly recorded. In some cases, this means it will get virtually lost in an avalanche. For high-profile books like "Hannibal" and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, comments number well into the hundreds.

Although Amazon claims the reviews help its customers decide what to buy, a greater value of these forums accrues to the contributors themselves and to those, like me, who look through the reviews after finishing a book, to compare notes and perhaps find a new perspective on that reading experience.

The review page gives ordinary readers a voice and a public. At its best it makes a supposedly solitary activity into a social act and a social good -- no purchase necessary.

Two insights confronted me again and again as I browsed these reviews over several days: how much people care about what they are reading, and how much fun they are having saying what they think -- which usually means getting into an argument.

Controversy drives the discussions. Negative comments draw passionate defenses. In the case of highly publicized or widely admired books, you can count on at least one person to arrive at the electronic party with a big shiny pin to pop the virtual balloons.

Almost everybody loves Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie," for example. The book has been a best seller and sentimental favorite for the better part of two years. But the site contains some stings: a Milwaukee reader observes the sharp irony that "Morrie specifically says that he hates self help books, and yet now his life and death have been turned into one. How sad." A Tel Aviv reader weighs in more pointedly: "I think the old guy killed himself to escape Mitch Albom's smug presence. Yuk."

What motivates people to write to Amazon? The large majority seem to be driven by plain old literary enthusiasm. Whether they're praising the newest gritty Dennis Lehane mystery or Edith Wharton's "House of Mirth," most of these readers seem to be trying to sustain the pleasure of a good read once the pages have run out. The glowing reviews are heartening, but in general not the most scintillating.

Negative reviewers tend to leave a stronger impression. If a highly recommended or highly hyped book leaves them with a bellyache and a bad taste in their mouth, a reader comment is the perfect place to? ... bellyache.

One of several Amazon contributors I contacted, Virginia reader Jane, reflected that "someone should make an effort to atone for the trees that died to publish such drivel." Media darling David Foster Wallace and mega-best seller Patricia Cornwell are among those whose bubbles she has gone online to burst.

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