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At Home with Robert Olen Butler
On the Future of Books

Back in 2001, Robert Olen Butler had already been teaching creative writing for well over a decade when he embarked on a writing project that some considered daring, if not prescient.

For two hours a night over a span of about two-and-a-half weeks, Butler wrote a short story, This is Earl Sandt from beginning to end in a webcast out of his office in FSU's Williams Hall. An antique postcard depicting a photo of the pioneering aviator's bi-plane with a torn canvas wing inspired the story just as much as the message scrawled on the back: "This is Earl Sandt of Erie, PA. In his aeroplane just before it fell."

An ardent collector of everything from art to antique shoes, Butler has long collected postcards, including the one of Earl Sandt's plane. What emerged from the webcast was a beautiful, sparingly told story told from the viewpoint of a bystander, a family man, who had witnessed the accident.

Even then, before obsessive texting and twittering, and the slow morph of the printed page into the paperless electronic equivalent, Butler saw the internet's mighty muscle.

"I love books-physical books-but they're not the path of the future," says Butler. "the vast majority of print books are headed to e-book readers."

An avid fan of Kindle, Butler even reads his newspapers on the device, using its wireless capabilities.

"I can re-size the text, and choose from 2,000 books right in the palm of my hand," he says.

Butler stays at the crest of the technology curve: the (34-hour!) webcast of the writing of This is Earl Sandt will become available this spring through i-Tunes U for classroom download.

How long before most printed books go the way of the record and the soon-to-die CD?"Sooner rather than later," Butler predicts. "Sometime in the next five to 10 years." -EB.