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Originally published Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Technological advances usher in the future of reading

Emma Teitgen, 12, thought the chemistry book her teacher recommended would make perfect bedside reading. Perfect because it might help her...

Los Angeles Times

Emma Teitgen, 12, thought the chemistry book her teacher recommended would make perfect bedside reading. Perfect because it might help her fall asleep.

Then she downloaded "The Elements: A Visual Exploration" to her iPad. Instead of making her drowsy, it blossomed in her hands. The 118 chemical elements, from hydrogen to ununoctium, came alive in vivid images that could be rotated with a swipe of the finger.

Tapping on link after link, Teitgen was soon engrossed in a world of atomic weights and crystal structures. Three hours later, the seventh-grader looked up to see that it was 11 p.m., way past her bedtime.

"It was like a breath of fresh air compared to my textbook," said Teitgen, who lives in Pittsford, N.Y. "I was really amazed by all the things it could do. I just kept clicking so I could read more."

More than 550 years after Johannes Gutenberg printed 180 copies of the Bible on paper and vellum, new technologies as revolutionary as the printing press are changing the concept of a book and what it means to be literate.

Sound, animation and the ability to connect to the Internet have created the notion of a living book that can establish an entirely new kind of relationship with readers.

As electronic reading devices evolve and proliferate, books are increasingly able to talk to readers, quiz them on their grasp of the material, play videos to illustrate a point or connect them with a community of fellow readers.

The same technology enables readers to reach out to authors, provide instant reaction and even become creative collaborators, influencing plot developments and the writer's use of dramatic devices.

Digital tools are also making it possible for independent authors to publish and promote their books, causing an outpouring of written work on every topic imaginable.

If the upheaval in the music industry over the last decade is any guide, the closing of more bookstores and a decreasing demand for physical books will force authors and their publishers to find new ways to profit from their work.

"There is not a single aspect of book publishing that digital won't touch," said Carolyn Kroll Reidy, chief executive of Simon & Schuster. "It is transformational."

Supplementing text

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"The Master of Rampling Gate," a novella by Anne Rice published in 1991 as a paperback, illustrates some of the possibilities. The work tells the story of a brother and sister who inherit a remote mansion occupied by the undead.

The out-of-print title was given new life in March, when it was reissued in digital form by Vook, an Alameda, Calif., startup that sells titles for the iPad and iPhone. As a $4.99 application sold through Apple's iTunes store, "The Master of Rampling Gate" comes with video interviews with Rice and others. Rice speaks about her inspiration for her works and about the Gothic genre in which she writes.

Within the text are links to Web pages that elaborate on events and places in the story — a description of the Mayfair neighborhood in London where the protagonists live or a history of the Black Death plague, which plays a key role in the fourth chapter.

"For me, this is a way to communicate with my readers, establish a connection with them and build a community around them," Rice said in an interview.

Vook (the name is a mash-up of "video" and "book") has published more than two dozen titles, including "Reckless Road," which describes the early days of heavy metal band Guns N' Roses. "Reckless Road" weaves in dozens of videos of the L.A. band's early performances and interviews with band members and groupies.

The videos and other digital features are designed to "project the emotion of the book without getting in the way of the story," said Brad Inman, Vook's chief executive and a former real-estate columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. "We want to revive the passion for traditional narrative. Multimedia could be a catalyst for spawning more reading."

Talking books

In addition to displaying pages from a book, digital e-readers can read them aloud, opening up a literary trove for the blind and the visually impaired who have long had only a thin selection of audio and Braille books to choose from. Devices made by Amazon.com and Intel are able to convert text into speech.

"You now have the ability to make a book talk," said George Kerscher, head of the Digital Accessible Information System Consortium in Zurich, Switzerland. Kerscher, who studied computer science at the University of Montana and is blind, has spent two decades lobbying publishers to make books more accessible to visually impaired readers.

Digital technology is also transforming reading from a famously solitary experience into a social one.

The newest generation of readers — the texting, chatting, YouTubing kids for whom the term "offline" sounds quaint — has run circles around the fusty publishing process, keeping its favorite stories alive online long after they're done reading the books.

Digital opportunities

Meanwhile, anyone with an Internet connection — or even a cellphone — effectively owns a digital printing press, and the distinction between professional and amateur writers is rapidly blurring. On Textnovel.com, thousands of cellphone-toting authors write novels via text message, one or two sentences at a time. Aspiring writers can sign up on the free site and begin writing, either from phones or computers. Readers can follow the stories online or receive a text every time their favorite author adds a plot twist.

Shannon Reinbold-Gee tapped out her 85,000-word thriller about teenage werewolves in just under five weeks using the Textnovel site. The former middle-school teacher figured she had no chance of getting a traditional publishing deal.

"I had absolutely no concept of where it was going to go," said Reinbold-Gee, 37, of Otego, N.Y. As she wrote, "I would just throw things out and hope something hit the target."

It did. The book, "13 to Life," won Textnovel's first annual contest and earned its author a three-book contract with St. Martin's Press, including a $10,000 advance. The first installment came out in paperback in June and will appear in Wal-Mart stores in August.

YouTube of books

On Scribd.com, writers and digital packrats are building a huge swap meet for written works of every length, many of which once existed on paper.

Visitors can browse digital versions of novels and nonfiction books — some by established authors, others by complete unknowns — along with recipes for spinach calzones and 1950s-era manuals for building transistor radios, nearly all of which is free.

As in many places online, free content is the rule. Writers who are intent on making money will have to find creative ways to attract readers and build an audience.

As the YouTube of books, Scribd provides a virtual printing press for budding writers and a community of potential readers. The company gets most of its revenue by selling advertising on the site.

Online book club

The proliferation of amateur content poses a conundrum for publishers, who must find a way to make a profit in a sprawling marketplace increasingly filled with free content.

"We've pretty much reached the point where the supply has now shifted to infinite," said Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press, a small New York publisher. "So the next question is: How do you make people want it?"

Part of the answer may be found on Goodreads.com, a digital library and social networking site where millions of members can log in and chat about any book they want, including many that will never see print.

Lori Hettler, of Tobyhanna, Pa., runs one of the largest book clubs on Goodreads, with nearly 7,000 members chiming in from all over the globe. Discussions can go on for hundreds of messages, with readers passionately championing — or eviscerating — the club's latest selection.

Digital critics

Hettler may be broadening reading horizons, but some people worry that new technologies will diminish the classic reading experience.

Whereas printed texts often are linear paths paved by the author chapter by chapter, digital books encourage readers to click here or tap there, launching them on side journeys before they even reach the bottom of a page.

Some scholars fear that this is breeding a generation of readers who won't have the attention span to get through "The Catcher in the Rye," let alone "Moby-Dick."

"Reading well is like playing the piano or the violin," said the poet and critic Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "It is a high-level cognitive ability that requires long-term practice.

"I worry that those mechanisms in our culture that used to take a child and have him or her learn more words and more complex syntax are breaking down," Gioia said.

Dr. Gary Small, director of the Center on Aging at UCLA and author of "iBrain," said Internet use activated more parts of the brain than reading a book did.

On the other hand, online readers often demonstrate what Small calls "continuous partial attention" as they click from one link to the next. The risk is that we become mindless ants following endless crumbs of digital data.

"People tend to ask whether this is good or bad," he said. "My response is that the tech train is out of the station, and it's impossible to stop."

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