Thursday, April 24, 2008


For almost four decades, the Palo Alto Research Center (parc) has brought the latest in technology to the world. On its website it claims to have invented laser printing, distributed computing and Ethernet, the graphical user interface (GUI, which led to windows-based computing), object-oriented programming, and ubiquitous computing. Lately, it has turned its attention to the concept of reading, with some fun results that may form the basis for new ideas of active, dynamic, and interactive relationships with literary texts. Take a look here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Literary Mix-Tape

The prose fiction we appreciate today from the late 16th century through the early 18th century in Spain, France and England was for the most part episodic, linked episodes in picaresque or epistolary form, such as Gargantua and Pantagruel, Lazarillo de Tormes, Don Quixote, The Princess of Cleves, the letters of Madame de Sévigné, Moll Flanders and Tom Jones. Robinson Crusoe is an exception (and please forgive my forgoing full titles: this is a blog, after all). So our notion of what makes the proper structure for quality prose fiction has changed over these centuries. The dominance of the psychological or social novel refined in the 19th century is recent and a result of the assimilation of the printing press and the rise of the middle class. Novels in the 16th and 17th centuries had perhaps not yet taken advantage of the continuity offered by the printing press and instead relied on the audience's ability to assimilate "linked anecdotes." It took a couple of hundred years for the novel to cohere as we know it today. Let’s use television as an example. Among the most popular shows for its first thirty years were the variety shows that took their lead from vaudeville. Where are they now?

My second point today is what the history of reading tells us about the future of reading (see Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading for a good overview). If so much of “reading” was oral/aural until a couple of hundred years after Gutenberg, which gave it a somewhat social element, and the immersive reading of the past few hundred years is only a stage in reading itself, we are most likely entering an era that will take something from both. For example, immersive reading followed by social assimilation of what is read. Despite the insistence of many, immersive reading never “shut out” the outside world completely. It simply pushed the surrounding environment aside or behind for brief periods of time (see Proust’s On Reading, the reprints of his introductions to John Ruskin, who himself believed that deep and/or systematic observation is type of reading).

So if the technology of participation is changing the way we subscribe to the literary arts, perhaps it will take time to secure its hold, despite the speed at which things move today. Perhaps participatory literature fulfills the promise of the idea that everyone reads a different book, perhaps in the future everyone will re-write a different book they are reading, i.e., the text itself will change, the promise of hypertext fulfilled. Reading will become a social act, and transparently mutable. Literacy and “literariness” as we know them today will have no meaning. The concept of literacy itself will not rely on the accumulated knowledge of fixed texts. Instead it will base itself on individual mutation and personal creativity, as it has always tacitly done. Forget print-on-demand, embrace creativity-in-demand. The next generation will develop the literary mix-tape, an anthology of personally selected short stories to be given to friends as Christmas gifts, complete with music mix to back it up.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Comics, Video Games and Reading

Spent most of yesterday at the New York Comicon, which has more than comics and graphic novels. In fact watching the adults there--by the way, the most racially diverse audience I've ever seen at a trade show or academic conference--not only snap up the literature but play video games based, or not based, on the comics, was very instructive. Seen in conjunction with reading Henry Jenkins's white paper on digital literacy written for the MacArthur Foundation, it brings up many questions on the future of reading and, perhaps more so, on the future of how to teach and understand literature. The Comicon is extraordinarily participatory--hundreds of people dressed in costumes based on comics, video games and movie characters--which the diginabobs claim is the educational future. Could one involve readers in a similar way to teach Joyce and Proust? Perhaps not, but similar participation could provide insights into plot and language. I remember once acting out the death of Antony for a group discussing Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" but my interpretation was more Harpo Marx than Laurence Olivier. Afterwards, a student said to me, "I don't agree with your interpretation, but I'll never forget that passage."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bezos on the Kindle

Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, spent most of his annual letter to shareholders talking about the Kindle, Amazon's e-reader. Interesting that he asks many good questions about the future of literary culture, but whoever wrote this letter for him seems tentative and not particularly well-informed. Suggestion to Amazon: if you really want to challenge assumptions about the electronic book, give a few to very creative writers who have shown their willingness to use multimedia and see what they come up with and then send those out as links with your annual letter to shareholders next year. I mean, think about what an e-reader is really capable of.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Head in a Bucket?

Listening to science-fiction and cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling on a webcast this morning talking about the ubiquity of connectivity. He also noted that reading a literary text as “immersive” was like putting a bucket over your head because it cuts off access to the grid. He makes no value judgment on such bucketing, at least it seems to me.

The idea of getting off the grid for a brief period of time is not new--there is a wonderful story about Edmund Wilson's parents buying him a baseball uniform when he was a boy, only to find him later that day sitting in the park under a tree, dressed in the uniform, reading a book--only that the grid is pervasive now. Too often readers complain that other pastimes compete for time with reading, but perhaps the problem is that sensation is more enjoyable that sensuousness. Watch Sterling by clicking here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Is this the Future of Poetry Reading?

The Academy of American Poets recently opened Mobile, the 2,500 poems on its site available for downloading to hand-held devices, particularly the iPhone. As with most digitial reading at the moment, the poems were written for print and the page, but it will be interesting to see poetry written for hand-held devices that can take advantage of the iPhone's multimedia capabilities. It seems to me that The Writer's Almanac, which supports podcasting, would be a natural for such a device, particularly if it were possible to pull the Almanac directly to a wireless device without going through a computer. It also seems that forward-looking poetry presses could market their books by sampling through hand-held devices, and a grant from a major foundation to a consortium of non-profit poetry presses would be a step in the right direction.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Future of Literary Culture

Last week I spoke at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota as part of the College's Honors Weekend, along with National Book Award Finalists Jim Shepard and Woody Holton. My subject was "The Future of Literary Culture", which is now up on the Concordia web site.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Stats on eBooks

Publishing Trends, a monthly newsletter published by Market Partners International, has an interesting article on the growth of e-books in its April issue, available today. It is still a small market, and the most important aspect is that consultants--and publishers--are pressing multiple formats for all books, with the idea that none of it will cannabalize print sales. Still an open question is what format will dominate in the future. For more information, visit