THE DREAM YOU HOLD -- What a Protean Codex Should Look Like and Do
Four Metaphors for Books, Offered as Aid to the New Electronic Bookbinders










Let's say that I am walking down the street (tossing my elbows out, comparison shopping on broccoli, flossing my teeth with the viscera of a shrimp) when three burly mercenaries -- each of whom wear white cable-knit sweaters and smell like oatmeal -- beat the shit out of me, tie a trash bag around my head, and stuff me in the back of a van.

They drive me thousands of miles away to a tall building covered in black reflective glass and they drag me to a damp room deep in the building's bowels and they pull out several of my teeth, make me renounce my government, and force me to piss on the Koran.

THEN, they give me a sheet of notebook paper, wrap my shaking fingers around a stub of pencil, and say:

"You think you are so smart. If you are so smart, why don't you tell us how to make a good ebook reader that you would like to use?"

Here is what I would write as they hover over me, watching, plaiting their mustaches, having jumping contests, feeding each other meat puddings to make each other "strong":


By Miracle Jones

She reached into her pocket and pulled out an oblong, black box the size of two folded teenager hands. The box was rectangular, sleek, and smooth, as if constructed from the smoky glass of an arcade machine. The box was hinged on one side and she held it out to me like a flyer for Fine Dentistry, searching my eyes as I frowned at her, considering whether or not to take it.

"Go on," she said. "It's new. I told you about it already. You promised you would try it."

"I don't like new things," I said.

"Then pretend we are in a museum a thousand years from now and we are sorting through ancient relics and it is very, very old."

"But equally alien," I said. "What happens if I drop it?"

"It won't break," she said. "It only looks like it is made from glass. It is actually as hard as steel."

This was a challenge. I snatched the box from her and held it, frowning. She was right. It was cold to the touch at first, but it warmed up in my hands like the handle of a coffee mug.

"How does it work?" I asked.

"It's a Protean Codex," she said. "A Prodex. There's no ONE WAY to work it. There are some standard protocols out there on the market for simple text files; but all the good publishers code books from scratch. You can code for four panels: two covers and two inside pages."

"Sounds distracting."

"A little bit," she said. "But you get used to it."

"What books does it have on it?"

"Oh, all the classics as straight text reads. I pirated all those ebooks awhile back and then I just ported them over. It's got some new stuff: the new Murakami, the new Carter. And then I'm buying all the new Prodex Dickens as they come out."

"Dickens! That sounds good! I want to look at a Dickens on this thing."

"Open it," she said.

I ran my finger along the smooth, black matte of the cover, and then I cracked the Prodex open: dubious.

As soon as I opened the Prodex, the two black screens in front of me lit up like the faces of two dissimulating lovers greeting each other after a long absence. The right side of the Prodex displayed the Google homepage. The left side looked like a library shelf, displaying hundreds of book spines of varying thicknesses and heights. There was a complete collection of Proust next to Heinlein's book about orgies with interstellar strangers.

"These are all out of order," I said.

"You can organize them however you want," she said. "The ones I haven't read are all organized according to gayness. There are programs that will organize your books according to the Library of Congress and will just leave blank spaces for the ones you haven't got yet."

"I don't see the Dickens," I said.

"Scroll down," she said.

I did as she suggested using the buttons on the side with my thumb. On the screen, I whizzed through a spinning virtual library, darting among the stacks like a hummingbird being chased by bees.

There was a break in the stacks, and then the books were sorted alphabetically.

"You can buy this program that puts virtual pets in your library," she said. "Cats, bears, butterflies. But I think they are annoying. You can also use the Prodex as a phone, by the way."

"There's no one I want to call. Stop bothering me."

I held the book up in front of my face.

"Aha!" I said. "David Copperfield!"

I touched the spine of the book and it started to glow. I touched it again.

"It doesn't have to look like a library either," she said. "You can get programs to organize your books any way you'd like. A bunch of balls floating in the void, maybe. Or people walking around at a cocktail party, each of whom represents a specific author. You click on Jane Austen and then Jane Austen lifts up her bloomers and then there are all of her books dangling from her skirts."

The copy of David Copperfield filled the screen. The cover was new to me: it was a vivid color picture of a leering albino clasping his clammy hands together and hovering over a sleeping, dishelved writer. As I watched, the picture moved, and the sleeping man woke up and spilled his bottle of ink. The orange-haired albino retreated into the shadows.

I touched the book again and it opened.

"Ah, so you found it," she said.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"Look at the front."

I looked at the front of the Prodex. The front cover of "David Copperfield" filled the previously blank screen. The animation was still going, and the words "David Copperfield" and "Charles Dickens" pulsed in gold.

"You can change it if you want so that nobody knows what you are reading," she said.

"I am proud to be reading Charles Dickens," I said.

"You can also surf the internet while you read on this thing, obviously," she said. "That means you can also watch movies and listen to music and shit. It's got two USB ports..."

"Enough: I'm trying to read!" I said. The text crawled up and down. I noticed an icon at the bottom of the page of a smiling man in a tophat with a paintbrush and a huge bowtie.

"What happens if I click on the painter lad?"

"Try it," she said.

I touched him. The right side of the book stopped showing the Google homepage, and turned into a picture of a pallid, sickly looking child being inspected by a spry old woman wearing spectacles and dressed all in feathers.

"A BOY!" the woman said, pushing up her glasses and frowning. "No! NO! NO!"

"It's got speakers," I said.

"If you are looking at the pictures, they track where you are in the text and automatically load themselves."

I touched the picture and it froze. There was another icon at the bottom that showed two tin cans linked together. I touched it, and the internet came back.

A web page loaded. It was a "David Copperfield" concordance with links to critical commentary, histories of Victorian England, links to the original illustrations for the original edition, and useless idiots blathering on about how important the book was, or what they thought the book meant.

"Who are all these useless idiots with their little icons and goddamned opinions?"

"English professors," she said, rolling her eyes. "They all have Prodex accounts nowadays."

"Jesus," I said, clicking back on the jolly painter.

I touched a third icon. This one was a picture of a steamer trunk. The icon brought up an empty document that mirrored the same infinite crawl as the text of the book. She tapped the side of the Prodex and teased out a stylus that was hidden in its bowels like the toothpick in a Swiss Army Knife.

"You can make notes in the margins," she said.

I drew a picture of a stick figure with a huge penis standing on top of the Empire State Building. I wrote: "RESEARCH THIS LATER!" by it.

"Why all the quaint Victorian images?" I asked.

"These icons are all Dickens-related because it is a Dickens book," she said. "Different publishers code different options. Some books have special features. Commentaries; videos; etc."

The fourth and last icon at the bottom showed a gnarled old man reading a picture book to a bunch of orphans. I touched it. A British-man began reading the book out loud in plummy, russet tones. I turned him off immediately.

"Irritating as all fuck," I said.

"You are not blind nor driving a car," she said.

"I guess," I said.

"All the books being published in Prodex form are required to have audio tracks by the "Americans with Disabilities Act." You can also read hypertext web books on this thing, because it's got the internet connection. Trust me, this thing is publisher friendly: if it's an electronic book in any form, you can call it up and the Prodex will store it for you and let you read it."

"What about in Chinese?"

"I'm sure it can handle Chinese," she said. "But you don't fucking speak Chinese."

"No," I agreed. "But what makes this thing any different than a laptop?"

"Not much," she said. "It's book-shaped. You can fit it in your pocket. If you flip it sideways, one of the screens becomes a keyboard, and you can write shit. You can't really play games on it, unless they are web games. It's just for reading and writing."

"So it's worse than a laptop."

"It's book-shaped," she said.

"It's book-shaped, but can I take it in the bath? And what happens if it gets caught in an MRI machine? Does my whole library get erased?"

She stared at me. She stared at me very hard. And then she took the Prodex from me and set it out of the way and then she came closer.

Posted by miracle on Wed, 19 Nov 2008 18:00:04 -0500 -- permanent link

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