For centuries, readers wanting literature turned to books. There they found Homer, Cicero, Shakespeare, and Faulkner. Books are how one generation passed its literary tradition to the next.
But this tightly bound relationship is coming unglued. A growing band of writers is challenging traditional notions about the book with new electronic forms of literature. Does one page always have to follow another? Does a book have to stay within two covers? Does it have to exist as a physical object at all?
Maybe not. Using computer technology, writers are generating new literary forms that one day may replace the paper-based book as the main means of communicating ideas.
Literary conservatives warn against this trend, and even supporters aren't sure whether the experiments will fly. But the movement is getting serious attention. This week, scholars at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association will devote several sessions to hypertext novels and, for the first time, electronic poems.
"It's a very distinguished conference," says Loss Pequeo Glazier, a digital poet and director of the Electronic Poetry Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "The mere fact that it has been included ... shows that academia is beginning to open its eyes to the possibilities."
Digital literature ranges from electronic poems, which display on-screen but just as easily could be printed on paper, to sophisticated poems and novels that offer multiple paths through which the reader can travel. This latter electronic form is called hypertext.
Instead of reading from beginning to end, hypertext encourages the reader to skip around via electronic links.
One of the first hypertext novels to gain prominence was a 1992 work called "Afternoon, a Story." Author Michael Joyce writes about Peter, who on his way home from work sees the aftermath of a car wreck and suspects it involves his wife and son. The reader can choose to move in disjointed fashion through the story screen by screen. But at the "end," it's not clear what has happened to the mother and child.
If readers click on various key words in the text, they can pick alternative routes that yield additional clues and context for other characters in the story.
Hypertext may be even more useful to poets, says Mr. Glazier. That's because poets have to use few words to convey an idea. And if a reader doesn't understand the phrase, he can quickly link to material that explains it. Uninformed readers might see a picture of a Grecian urn, for instance, while reading Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Glazier's own poems link to other poetic material, which lead to other allusions, creating a kind of literary environment.
This kind of poetry resides in great abundance on the part of the Internet known as the World Wide Web and has made publishing an easier process.
The response from authors and scholars has been mixed, however. While many paper- based writers are beginning to experiment with the new technology, Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, a hypertext publisher in Watertown, Mass., notes an "increasing reluctance on the part of the literary community to read hypertext." Partly, this is due to a conservative backlash, he adds.
One of the most stinging attacks has come from Sven Birkerts. His 1994 book, "The Gutenberg Elegies," argues that society is making an unholy alliance with digital media.
This is a dangerous course, he adds, because it breaks centuries of literary tradition that has served society well. For example, if every electronic book can be updated at will, we lose a sense of history and fixed fact. If every work becomes hypertext, then the conventional method of building a logical argument or telling a linear story is subverted. And the old giver-receiver relationship between author and reader is changed into a new kind of interaction in which it's hard to discern that the author gains any stature, he adds.
"It's happening with my own children," says Paul Miers, an English professor and director of the information-technology enterprise group at Towson State University in Towson, Md. "It becomes more difficult to get them to sustain reading long works of fiction." But "the Digital Age isn't the end of the book. It's a renaissance of the notion of the book."
In some ways, it's a return to what existed before the printing industry took hold, says Glazier. "To think of literature as a totally linear affair ... is really a product of the Machine Age. You stick something in one end and it comes through as something else the other side." Early Bibles, he adds, contained marginal notes and translations that were an early form of interactivity.
Just because some writers gravitate to hypertext, it's not at all clear that readers will follow. They may prefer the more traditional linear approach of literature but packaged, perhaps, in new electronic forms. But it is clear that technology has sparked an important intellectual debate.
"For the first time in a long time, we're called to think about what a book is and what writing means for us," says Mr. Bernstein of Eastgate Systems. "What are things that we adore in books? And what are the things we don't? ... These questions are hard to think about when all you have is books.