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Digitizing literature

LAST MONTH Random House and Amazon announced a ''pay-per-view" (some would say ''page-per-view") collaboration to bring the content of a book within the reach of anyone with Internet access -- for a fee. This latest initiative comes on the heels of Google's Book Search, the controversial project that makes collections of several major research libraries searchable online as well as books provided by publishing houses.

While some publishers, librarians, and authors salute the effort as an inevitable step forward, many others are troubled about the implications of on-demand literature in a society already addicted to instant gratification for everything from shopping to news. In today's fast, free-and-now mentality, cellphones, Treos, iPods, ''Crackberries," PDAs, and computers too often replace the sound of a real human voice communicating live, in person, with another human being.

Now this trend threatens the written word and books. Proponents of the digitization of literature speak of the effort in Herculean terms. Here is how Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan, describes Google's effort: ''This project signals an era when the printed record of civilization is accessible to every person in the world with Internet access." Think about it, the printed record of civilization. Is that what literature has become? Funny, we thought literature and books were the work products of writers' lives, reducing to paper the very essence of human experience, not merely historical records to be archived and consumed in bits and pieces while multi-tasking.

Poets tell us that the most fundamental rhythm in a poem, iambic pentameter, is derived from the same source we depend on every minute of our lives -- the human heart beat. The authors of great works often spend years writing one book, many without fanfare, and too often alone, having to juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. But in the end, their struggle and their life's work bring us the very thing that makes us human: emotions and empathy as well as joy, sorrow, hope, despair, tragedy, and, often, love. Their books resonate with the reader, providing context and meaning to a world that seems these days to be incomprehensible.

But the act of reading a great book requires something of the reader: time. A book must be ''read," it can't be background noise nor can it be understood from a page. If books are reduced to just another streaming media, how does an author foreshadow an event or delight us with a surprise ending? Can the works of James Joyce or F. Scott Fitzgerald or those of Zadie Smith or Khaled Hosseini be absorbed from one-page instant messages, broken up by advertising and video images?

To an already endangered publishing ecosystem, the prospect of spoon-feeding bits of digitized literature seems to be the last thing our civilization needs. If we're not careful, our children, and the society we create around them, will remembers bits of this so-called ''printed record" without ever knowing the joy of having read a book cover to cover. They won't even remember what a book feels like.

Just the other day, someone mentioned that his teenage son had just graduated from a well-known private school without ever reading a book. CliffsNotes and Google searches, yes; books, no.

We've gotten to a point where we have to be reminded that all knowledge does not spring from Google; that true wisdom comes from the most basic human urge to understand the world around us, to see life through the eyes and voices of others. To connect. Sitting down with a book can be the first step in the process. You simply can't Google that.

Jim Bildner is the founder and chairman of The Literary Ventures Fund. Ande Zellman is its editorial director.

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