Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The American Republic of Letters, Part Two

Politics and power have always played a role in literary reading. Who reads what and why is not always based on taste, as it has for the most part been in our bourgie era. In various times and epochs it has also been influenced by education, political censorship, sexism, money, marketing, religion, ambition, and technological advances. The medieval Catholic Church was one of the most obvious lords of literature, both restricting and preserving great books. Its influence into the Spanish Inquisitional era is very well documented in Irving Leonard’s Books of the Brave (out of print, I believe), where the Spanish administration in Madrid and Seville could control every book sent to its colonies, until it exported printing presses, and lost control both of ideas and then the colonial states themselves. Contrast that with the privately run English colonies, where control was exercised by local ministers, if at all.

Our own era is witnessing a vast shift in power and influence in literary reading, and though we have often bantered and argued about who influences our reading habits and why, certainly those we considered primary influencers are trying desperately to “re-tool” in order to retain their influence as it slowly slips away.

For about two decades we have watched enrollment in college English courses deteriorate and the number of English majors decline (viz., Andrew Delbanco’s article The Decline and Fall of Literature in “The New York Review of Books”, November 14, 1999), done-in by a variety of forces, including a willful need for obscurantism and even irrelevance; the number of independent booksellers decrease by two-thirds, picked off one-by-one first by superstores and then by the internet; and newspaper book reviews have all but disappeared, killed by the interplay of digitization and cultural anarchy (the idealistic kind, not the chaotic kind).

Without flogging the trope that “as moveable type, blah, blah, blah”, the advent of digitization is changing the power structure of who reads what, in many, many ways, including everything from creation to consumption, and the new “players” include the great digitizing companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, eInk, and a host of bit players who create apps, blogs, and other things that appeal to recently created patterns of consumption. But they are not the only power players. Corporate copyright fiefdoms are in the midst of creating the Celestial Jukebox. If libraries of the future have no right to lend information, the copyright-holders—often large corporate entities—will control what we read, and even re-read. Of course, the opposite may happen, and anarchy-oriented organizations may figure out a way to yippify the literary universe. Small presses linger on the margins, wondering if the new structure will bring them more influence. In any case, the old power structure is changing, and the American Republic of Letters is in the process of creating a new booky politic.

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