The January 2013 issue of PMLA (the journal of the Modern Language Association) includes several articles about new reading technologies, mainly e-books and audiobooks. Contrary to what one might stereotypically expect from English professors, these authors don’t pronounce stuffily conservative messages viewing the new technology with alarm, but deliver some refreshing and provocative insights. I was particularly interested in “Reading, in a Digital Archive of One’s Own,” by Jim Collins, obviously an allusion to Virginia Wolfe’s “A Room of One’s Own.” (I’m still waiting for that room of my own as well as the guaranteed annual income Wolfe says every woman writer needs. Does Social Security count?)
Collins mentions the view-with-alarm commentators who worry about “the future of reading” and points out that what they’re talking about is a specific kind of reading, what they consider real reading—as opposed to whatever people do with e-books. Reading, says Collins, “is no longer a uniquely solitary practice—it is alternately solitary and social.” He seems to be thinking partly of sites such as Goodreads, which another article in this issue discusses in depth.
Some passages that especially struck me:
“If Bradbury’s firemen did suddenly turn up to do their evil work, they would be thrown into existential panic about what to burn since so many ‘book people’ are reading novels on their screen of choice. . . . but the discourse on e-books has been limited either to dire pronouncements about the final victory of digital culture over traditional print culture or to bombastic celebrations of how fast they’ve been adopted.”
”How does the existence of this kind of portable media archive completely redefine what we mean by reading? Personal libraries have been around for centuries, and the idea that we are a product of our libraries has been part of the humanist education project all along.” In other words, we are what we read, a concept Collins compares to the MP3 player slogan “You Are Your Playlist.”
Collins reassures us, “Changing the material form of the book does not necessarily result in a domino effect whereby close reading and extended narrative inevitably disappear.” He sharply summarizes the fears of the view-with-alarmers: “Change the object that is the book, and suddenly attention spans shorten, long-form narrative shrinks into sound bites, deep reading is no longer necessary, and literature departments are obsolete. According to this scenario, reading literary fiction on an e-reader is a gateway drug that leads to the hard stuff of digital culture—become psychologically dependent on that e-reader, and you’ll find yourself in an alley somewhere with a cell-phone novel written by promiscuous Japanese teenagers sticking out of your arm.” He sensibly refers us to changes in the long-form narrative throughout its history, including television series that extend their story arcs over several seasons, demanding deep engagement from viewers. This modern form of storytelling can exist only because of new technology such as home viewing devices that allow us to shelve archives of a TV program in our own houses and “view it novelistically, chapter by chapter at [our] own pace.”
As far as the “inevitable” replacement of long narratives by sound bites is concerned, that prediction is already disproved by the freedom e-books allow for publishers to produce longer novels at no greater cost than shorter ones, giving authors a flexibility in word counts never before enjoyed. And as for the fear that the typical reader will balk at tackling a very long work, fanfic seems to refute that assumption. For example, over the past year I’ve read a serialized DARK SHADOWS fanfic comprising over forty installments of fifteen chapters each, and I’m sure it’s far from unique or the longest continuous fan novel out there.
Remember, philosophers in Plato’s time were suspicious of written culture in itself because they feared depending on it would ruin people’s memories. To some extent that may be true, but would we choose the ability to memorize the entire ILIAD if we had to give up literacy for it? Each new cultural development has its losses and gains.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt