“…done for, there was no way back, the end was here, the absolute end…”
--Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych
A few posts back I noted that I thought reading on a tablet reader would change the way immersive literature would be read, that traditional, plot-driven literature would miss the metaphor and illusion of “edge-to-interior, interior-to-edge” the printed book provides. As book-readers, we appreciate traditional books because we read them in their printed versions. But tablet-style readers will “flatten” our ability to immerse ourselves. On the one hand, this will open new ways of writing. In English, Beckett and Burroughs will most likely emerge as the godfathers of literary abstraction, Markson, Shields, and Danielewski its avatars.
But as they read in digital format, which emphasizes surface-tension, will the next generation of screen-readers understand the deeply running waters of previous literary generations? Will they be able to appreciate it unless they read in the delivery format for which it was intended? As I wandered through the Bonnard exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, and stared at a Rothko painting in the Smith College Museum of Art yesterday, I was struck by how the former could rail against the frame and the latter ignore it. If you removed Bonnard’s late paintings from their frames, would they retain a strength built on the violence against the frame? If you add a baroque frame to Rothko, will he retain his surface tension? If you force Tolstoy into a different delivery method—an uncomfortable frame—will the reader understand what made past generations appreciate him? Will holding plastic by the fingertips provide the illusion that life is lived within the cover, which feign a natural environment full of transcendental emotion? As we approach the composition of new literature, “life lived within these covers” will not matter, because the literature itself will be abstract. The question is will the illusion of the past be unattainable in the delivery methods of the future?
The next generation of machines may have the ability to create illusion, as did the printed book, or enhance abstraction, the way the current ones do. Or perhaps accomplish both. That way they won’t kill Tolstoy for future generations, and it won’t really be the absolute end.