NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #34
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, February 2, 1999

Stanford Panel: Ebooks Unveiled
Sleeper of the Week: 'The Orchid Thief'
Flawed (But Worth It) Find: 'Death Dance'
Quickie: 'Meditation Made Easy'

STANFORD PANEL: EBOOKS UNVEILED

It's a busy afternoon at the Computer Sciences Building at Stanford University. A basement auditorium is crammed with students and faculty members, and panelists are busily setting up displays of the new wonder of our electronic age (or is it the latest toy or gimmick?), the pageless, printless, coverless, glueless "electronic book."

A mythology has already built up around electronic books - it says they're soon to replace the old-fashioned, pages-between-covers books that most of this college audience lugs around campus by the pound. The fact that CD-ROMs once inspired as much excitement and money - yet nearly dropped out of sight within a few years - doesn't seem to bother anybody. At this point, only weeks after they've officially gone on sale, ebooks are IN.

Even before the panel begins, the audience can see that the ebook is simply a portable screen in the shape of a book or binder. Its innards carry the text of 10 full books, 20 hours of battery-charged reading time and a no-extra-cost bonus that allows the reader to underline text and make marginal notations.

The auditorium itself is wired to its air vents with unseen cameras and banks of television screens that give viewers just the right close-up views of panelists and the ebooks they've brought. Since two of the major manufacturers - NuvoMedia and Softbook - are located near Stanford University, professor Dennis Allison has asked representatives to bring in the latest models and talk about design, use, sales and marketing plans

.

Dennis has also enlisted two "literary observers" for the panel - one author who's published with "the largest publishers, medium houses and small presses," he tells us, and one maverick book review editor who's now writing uncensored commentary on the Internet - to comment on the cultural significance of the ebook.

First, Martin Eberhard of NuvoMedia places his "unit" (already the nonliterary language! one panelist silently observes) on a square in front of him so the overhead camera can zoom down for a close-up view: This is the Rocket eBook, and it's a knockout, all right, about the size of an average book (say, 6x9") but with one side rounded and enlarged like a bicycle handle to fit comfortably in the reader's hand (right or left, it doesn't matter - the screen will accommodate).

It's lightweight and can be read vertically or horizontally, enlarges or reduces type in seconds and offers a backlit LCD screen that is clean and white, like a blank page, making the text readable and inviting.

Press this spot, says Martin, and you turn the page. Underline like this, write a note to yourself like this, look up a character you've forgotten like this, trace a recurring word like that, use the dictionary/thesaurus like so. A hush fills the room as people gaze at backpacks loaded with books they now perceive as instantly obsolete. The initial audience for ebooks, Martin allows, will be academic, after all.

Now Aleksey Novicov of Softbook places his "unit" under the camera, and we immediately see the difference. This ebook is bigger - about the size of typing paper (8.5 x 11") - and is activated when you open the leather cover. Text definition is just as good, and the menu, with its lists of "bookshelf" titles, periodicals and personal documents, is easy to follow.

Pages can be "dog-eared" (touch the upper right-hand corner and a graphic appears to flip it over). You can use your finger to highlight text, insert a blank page for notes, draw, write or erase. You can also "flip through" the book by tapping a bar on the bottom of the page. If you like the bigger size, this one is also a knockout.

Both representatives say that once you understand the massive "paradigm shift" that is coming and that will profoundly change the way books are bought and sold, their companies "fit into the publishing industry as intermediaries" to help publishers and booksellers alike. "We do not displace key participants," says Martin.

Rocket books are downloaded from online booksellers to PCs (a free 3-month subscription to the Wall Street Journal is thrown in as well), Softbooks through the phone. "Books remain the property of the publisher, and retailers can sell them alongside paper books. Both the publisher and the bookseller can set prices competitively."

Two rights questions remain, both say: First, "since electronic editions can be 'shipped' anywhere in the world, what is the meaning any longer of 'territorial rights'?" Second, "since electronic editions can be printed at the moment of purchase, what does 'out-of-print' mean any longer, especially in respect to reversion of rights to the author?"

Other questions the audience thought might be thorny appear to be nearly resolved: How will libraries "loan" out an ebook? By programming the text to "expire" when the borrowing time is over (imagine: no late returns of library ebooks). How are copyright protections maintained for authors? Encryption software is built-in to both ebooks.

Author and panelist Gary Gach isn't sure the screen will hold a person's attention through one entire book, let alone 10. "How long before my eyes glaze over?" he asks. Probably never, says Martin, who says that "in a recent test, special instrumentation software was installed in a stack of units to monitor the minute-by-minute behavior of people reading the ebooks. We wanted to see if they would use it like crazy for the first day but give it up after a month.

"Almost 100 percent of the people read as much the first day as the last. They said they found it very readable. We consider this early model to be like the first cell phones - remember them? That were very bulky and big as bricks. In the case of ebooks, too, the technology can only get better, but for now this is still a pretty good product for a substantial number of people."

What about unknown authors getting published? Gach asked. Ah, the two ebook makers said, this is where electronic books effectively "lower the bar" for writers, because they remove so many of the costs that keep publishers from taking a chance on unknowns.

Of course, more writers publishing electronic books may only contribute to the kind of "anarchism" that has taken over the Web like so much white noise, the panelists agree. But as Gach observes, "publishers are very conservative; they wonder why they should publish an unknown when they can make a gazillion dollars on a present seller."

I found myself then (the fourth panelist) pondering the Great Paradox of the Internet: Anybody with a PC and a modem knows the feeling of liberation and raw equality that sets in when you go on the Web to find information or offer opinion. But at the same time, international conglomerates, especially in the publishing industry, are amassing power like mad.

Look at the German publishing company Bertelsmann, which has not only gobbled up a good chunk of the present publishing industry, it's spent $200 million on barnesandnoble.com, whose parent, Barnes & Noble, plans to buy Ingram, the country's largest wholesaler.

Just as Barnes & Noble is all over the Internet making "affiliates" of thousands of websites, it has also burrowed into the electronic book field as well: Recent reports say that B&N has given $400 million to NuvoMedia to develop Rocket eBooks - but at what cost, observers want to know?

"It wasn't that much," Martin responds regarding the B&N figure. "It was about half that amount." And what does Barnes & Noble get for that investment? "We chose to take on B&N precisely because they are willing to invest without any caveats," Martin answers.

"They are an investor in the company, and that's it. They have no special deal with us, no preferred pricing, no most-favored-nation status. We designed the system specifically to allow as many bookstores as possible to come into it."

"That's wonderful," I say. "Barnes & Noble is such a generous corporation." OK, a cheap laugh, sue me. (Only last week, by the way, DVD Empire, the online retailer of digital video discs and video compact discs, announced that it will be NuvoMedia's first exclusively online retail partner at http//:www.ebookempire.com. The on-Earth retailer of Rocket books is the mail-order house Levenger.)

Perhaps the most dramatic prediction of what could happen to book publishing if electronic books become popular comes from a member of the audience. "Publishing is dead," he says, holding up his palm pilot. "This is MY 'ebook.' I've read several books on this already. In the future, 'publishers' will be technical-services companies that handle the format for ebooks. People like you," he gestures toward Martin and Aleksey, "will have to decide if you are a hardware manufacturer, a publisher or a distribution channel."

Ah, students, they know everything. It's the "paradigm shift" taken to quite an extreme. "We perform all three of those functions," saysAleksey, "because we've got to get this industry going. We've got to show how it can be done. Besides, the book business is huge - we're hardly going to be the only two companies out there."

Of course, the Internet has already proclaimed traditional publishers "dead" because anybody with a modem and a website can "publish." The result may be defined as anything from pure democracy to what Aleksey calls "anarchy." To my mind, "it's the kind of informed chaos that can be a lot of fun, but in terms of finding original material, nurturing unknown writers and contributing to a body of knowledge or of art, there has to be some kind of structure no matter what the paradigm. Editing is that structure, and that's what publishers do. They select original material, nurture writers, edit books - and believe me, everybody needs an editor."

In the end, says Martin, "ebooks will not kill the publishing industry - they will purify the publishing industry to do what publishers really need to do." Far from the latest toy or gimmick, the ebook seems to be here to stay.

SLEEPER OF THE WEEK: 'THE ORCHID THIEF'

It seems that quietly dazzling, never-get-enough-of-him writer John McPhee has been reborn in Susan Orlean, a fellow New Yorker writer who's as fascinated by eccentricity in ordinary life as he is.

Orlean is also gifted at ferreting out other people's passions, and, like McPhee, she can be instructive and subversive at once.

The charming loudmouth who's the subject of her book, THE ORCHID THIEF (Random House; 284 pages; $25), could be a genius or a nut, and his obsession - the wild swamp orchids of Florida - reflects a part of that peculiarly American obsession that so often turns natural elements into kitsch.

Accused of stealing rare orchids from the Fakahatchee swamp in south Florida, John Laroche ("handsome in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth") leads Orlean into a world of obsessive orchid-raising that is so beyond the arcane we think we're on another planet

The orchids she finds have "fabulous, fantastic names: Golden Grail and Mama Cass and Markie Pooh and Golden Buddha Raspberry delight and Dee Dee's Fat Lip." Some orchids are seen to take after famous people: "The 'Jackie Kennedy' orchid is snow-white with purple trim; the 'Richard Nixon' is the color of putty with brown speckles."

Orlean discovers that at least in Florida, where tens of thousands of new species have been created or unearthed, someone like Laroche can "play God" by creating mixtures that cause strange mutations. "He often took germinating seeds and drenched them with household chemicals or cooked them for a minute in his microwave oven so that they would mutate and perhaps turn into something really interesting, some bizarre new shape or color never seen before in the orchid world."

We might tire of Orlean's exhaustive and exhausting research on orchids, except that orchid life in the Fakahatchee, where many species "either live wild or die," turns out to be a one big metaphor for the push-me-pull-you state of "civilization" in America.

Even as Florida's "natural landscapes [are] just moments away from being drained and developed," she writes, "its most manicured places [are]only an instant away from collapsing back into jungle."

Everywhere she looks, Orlean sees a "moldable, reinventable" Florida, "a collision of things you would never expect to find together in one place - condominiums and panthers and raw woods and hypermarkets and Monkey Jungles and strip malls and superhighways and groves and groves of carnivorous plants . . . all toasting together" in the hot Florida sun.

This is the "incongruity and paradox" of life in Florida that by extension dominates American history, Orlean suggests. We learn, for example, that orchids represent that strangely sexual allure of both wilderness and hothouse conditions. The very name of the plant, she tells us, "derives from the Latin orchis, which means testicle. This refers not only to the testicle-shaped tubers of the plant but to the fact that it was long believed that orchids sprang from the spilled semen of mating animals."

That's just the beginning of the Eeeuw! Bleagh! documentation Orlean brings to the subject. When she finally gets up the nerve to set her tootsies into the oozing hot mud of the Fakahatchee and hunt the elusive "ghost orchid" herself, the really awful "fun," as Laroche might call it, really begins.

FLAWED (BUT WORTH IT) FIND: 'DEATH DANCE':

You have to put up with a typographical error every two pages, an overly complicated plot, too many characters, wordy descriptions, a poorly constructed theme and digressions that many readers will find irritating (and some a lot of fun).

But as you're reading DEATH DANCE by Berton Garey (SLG/Cetusaurus, P.O. Box 9465, Berkeley CA 94709, (510) 525-1134, dance@slgbooks.com, distributed by Publishers Group West; 354 pages; $11.95 paperback), amateurish problems that might frustrate first novels like this gradually disappear - or let's say float around without impact.

It's hard not to keep chuckling along with the black humor of the narrator, Kurt Goldman, a Berkeley contractor who's called to Los Angeles after his older brother, a famous entertainment lawyer named Marty, commits suicide - or so everybody thinks.

Because law partners, clients, colleagues and relatives all seem to have a different story about Marty, Kurt, recognizing that "man does not live on bullshit alone," begins his own informal investigation.

Kurt's free-floating air of distrust inspires him to scrutinize every detail he sees. At the funeral parlor, he observes "lots of deep red or maybe maroon curtains hanging from the walls," while "the rug was thick and red too. A theme." When a boorish lawyer threatens him by leaning too close, Kurt reveals a secret he's not supposed to know. "[The lawyer's] posture changed immediately. He stood straight up like someone had caught him bending over in the shower at the county jail."

Kurt has been named executor of Marty's will and immediately gets his back up when Marty's former law partners pressure him to request an autopsy. It seems Marty's old firm, and the new one he founded, could be owed substantial money from estate and insurance settlements if an autopsy comes up with "some abnormality, some physiological defect" in Marty's body. Kurt, grief-stricken and furious, is desperate to believe Marty wasn't a suicide but refuses to sign the autopsy request all the same.

"Cutting him up for an autopsy was a violation of some kind that I couldn't exactly explain to myself," he tells us. "It demeaned him. Like it was the beginning of a scorched earth policy meant to undo him, to erase his existence. Make some Cuisinart puree of him to satisfy these vultures. It scared me. Life is such a wisp of smoke, as it is, how could I let them drag his body through the streets behind the golden chariot of an insurance pay-off? Dice him and slice him and leave him beside the road?"

Kurt admits "there was a large element of avoidance in my refusal to sign the autopsy request . . . As if I could keep death further away from me by keeping some of its ugliness from him. If I couldn't defend him in life, couldn't save his life, I'd sure as hell defend what I could of him in death."

Standing up to the "vultures" opens Kurt up to us in ways that make him vulnerable, his thoughts and questions risky. With every move, "I had the feeling you get when you walk unexpectedly face first into a huge spider web." Yet part of the webbing that engulfs him is his own memory of a childhood growing up poor in Beverly Hills - of going to Santa Monica beach on the public side of the exclusive Beach Club, where many of his and Marty's rich school friends hung out.

The ensuing scenes - of sneaking into the Beach Club or climbing dangerously up an ornate railing 70 feet from the ground in a 19th-century building where his father had a garment factory ("my dad was fluent in Spanish and women," he recalls ruefully) - bring us deep inside the family dynamic that makes Kurt's emotions so volatile as he probes the death of his big brother.

We tend to forgive him, then, if he is mean toward women (when a female colleague who's justifiably angry at him decides to go home, he suggests the reason: "maybe to take a Motrin or two"), or if he pretends to a bit of swaggering ("I have this great, infallible intuition. Once in a while, I'm even right"), or if he succumbs to feelings of inadequacy ("one look around this place," he says of The Beach Club his brother finally did join, "and I knew if I had all the money in the world, I'd never belong").

What makes "Death Dance" rise above its unfortunate title, its unfortunate use of exclamatory punctuation (??!!), its irritating dependence on linking verbs ("there was," "there were") and its many picked-up-and-dropped characters is its belief that the audience of a legal thriller is capable of understanding highly complicated legal and business dealings that take Kurt hundreds of pages to untangle. The book also reveals a lot of heart in the way Kurt ponders existential issues that are new to him.

"The thing about Marty's suicide that hurt the most, besides the loss of him," Kurt thinks at one point, "was that it dismissed in one terrible moment the conviction I thought we shared, that life was precious. That with very few exceptions, life was worth clinging to with all your might. That death was the enemy, to be fought and held at bay with your last ounce of strength."

At the same time, Kurt wonders without judgment, "Why fear death? Maybe Marty didn't. Maybe he found death was more like a patient friend." And for the rest of us? "I could see we're all in a death dance. The question isn't whether Marty knew that death was coming at him from all sides, from supposed friends as well as enemies or not, or whether I'd learned it. The question is can you accept it? Can you, will you make the decision to dance if you know the music is going to stop?"

QUICKIE: 'MEDITATION MADE EASY'

You may think the last thing the world needs needs is another book on meditation, but take a look at the nifty MEDITATION MADE EASY by Lorin Roche (HarperSanFrancisco; 198 pages; $16 paperback) before you have another meditative thought.

Many books characterize meditation as difficult and elusive at first, requiring practice and the development of everybody's favorite contradiction, attentive nonattention. But Roche, a meditation trainer for 30 years, turns that old stuff on its head.

"Meditation is quietly sexy, in the way that getting a massage or listening to great music is," he writes. "It should have a sense of luxury and deliciousness. It should be a place for you to entertain all your desires and longings and prepare to fulfill them . . . It may feel like loafing, and that's good."

Roche knows all the tricks ("meditate less than you want to") and the tips (think of meditation as "taking time to watch the sunrise"). And he's great on the breathing/chanting rituals and "do-nothing techniques" that lead people to the "sense of wonder" about life and love and spirit that can make meditation so joyous.