Monday, June 30, 2008

A Hope for the Future

The very intelligent and thoughtful editor and publisher Jonathan Karp (Twelve) voices his desire that in the future publishers press for good quality work from their publishers in an article in the Washington Post on Sunday, June 29th. He is not the first publisher to voice such a hope (see Andre Schiffrin in both the establishment of The New Press and his biting memoir The Business of Books) but he may be the most successful early in his career in terms of intelligent books becoming best sellers (note that in his first season of publication one of his books was a National Book Award finalist, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great).

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Narrative of Great Books

I gave a talk called "How Do You Look at Books?" the other day to 150 teenagers in the Great Books summer program at Amherst College The kids were very attentive and smart, befitting a group of self-selected bibliophiles, some of whom claimed to read 150 books a year.

I began with a history of how various people have seen books, from Socrates, who decried the growing reliance on books in Plato’s Phaedrus, to the mystical nature of scribe-copied books behind the walls of abbeys to the new narrative entertainment of video games. When I suggested that the participatory narrative of video games might affect the reading of fixed-narrative literature, most of the kids balked: they definitely did not see this happening. They enjoy both playing video games and reading books, and wanted the stories in novels to remain immutable, which most felt was their charm and interest. They also disagreed with my assertion that contemporary video game narratives were truly changeable. They claimed that the goal of video games remained constant: Only the path taken to reach the ultimate goal could be changed. Because the narrative lines were not unlimited, the narrative itself was not essentially changeable.

Quick aside: what does it mean to the future of literary reading that the San Diego Comic-Con gets over 100,000 visitors in four days?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Research Methods Beyond Google

Take a quick look at this article from "Insider Higher Education" on the need to expand research beyond Google and combat intellectual complacency at the university level. It presumes that most students want to pursue intellectual competency and not simply work for grades. It may also assume that students can become engaged by immersing themselves in research topics and then thinking about how to formulate their own ideas, when much of today's directions point to the collection of "factoids" as discussion capital.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Book Publishers' Manifesto for the 21st Century

To read Sara Lloyd's "A book publishers' manifesto for the 21st Century" from blog and site, click here. It's a manifesto and not a road-map, so it stops short of specific recommendations. However, embedded within are ideas on how people will read in the future.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Projected Poems of John Ashbery

For the past thirty years, one of my hobbies has been to dabble in the study of languages. I’ve learned enough of five or six to struggle through popular and literary novels, but never enough to consider myself more than competent in any one but English (though I will confess to having translated a couple of books from Spanish). I was often stymied by an inability to get the books I wanted in the languages I was studying, even with the circulating collection of The New York Public Library at hand. When I studied Indonesian for a couple of years and had become comfortable enough to make my way through simple novels, I found that I couldn’t find very much in the United States. I was, however, able to get a copy of Charles Webb’s The Graduate, in Indonesian, and I spent a couple of weeks parsing its sentences. The limited availability was a good thing: I could read only what I could get.

Fast forward to 2030. Every book ever published in every language is available for download on my e-reader. There are no literary critics, only social networks. Absent expertise, relativism triumphs. The concept of historical lists of must-reads—a popular “canon”—is laughable. Universities don’t teach literature classes, they embed literature in experiential technical training (except for a few hold-out teachers, called Mandarins, after the sectionable fruit). The Ford Motor Company is defunct, and history really is bunk. Instead of reading, I am injected with the memory of reading specific books and, boy, I really got a great deal of pleasure from reading Don Quixote for the third time (so much richer after three readings, isn’t it, especially when you read it, as I remember doing, while sitting on the terrace of a castle in La Mancha?). Sometimes I don’t have the memory of books given to me. Instead, I call up a hologram of William Gibson and he reads his new book to me directly in virtual reality. When I don’t like the direction the story is taking, I tell him to change it, which he does, according to my specifications. John Ashbery just passed away at the age of 103 and I was thinking about his poem “Purists Will Object” and how we’ll never have any new poems from him after sixteen collections. But the past is now the future so I call up all his poems and feed them into my Recryptoverse program and it creates twelve new Ashbery poems which I add to my blog as “The Projected Poems of John Ashbery” so that people can read them on their UrenkelKindle.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Graphic Novel in the Canon

What is included in the literary canon changes every few generations, not only in the works selected by institutions such as schools and universities, but the genres. Until the late nineteenth century, the novel was not considered Literature. Many universities did not consider any American literature worthy of higher education until after the Second World War, yet now it is essential. Theories of the changing literary canon are outlined in John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Creation. It is filled with jargon, but is still readable.

The graphic novel may be reaching the beginning stages of inclusion, but teachers need to understand it better before they include it in the classroom. In the graphic novel, text implies image, image implies text, independent from and dependent on one another. Like white space in the post-modern novel, in the graphic novel the space between the panels contains narrative. The history and criticism of comics have yet to be written in any comprehensive form but they are coming, evidenced by the panel discussion on the canon of comics I attended this morning at New York University, sponsored by The Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art and featuring Rob Storr, Dean of the
Yale School of Art; John Carlin, editor of Masters of American Comics and curator of a seminal comics exhibition; and Dan Nadel, author of Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969. With a comprehensive history, comics’ past will change, as will their future. I hope we will not leave the writing up to art historians, however, and remember the interdependence of text and image.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Future of the Past

The bad news about the survival of the past’s literary culture grows day-by-day. The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home, which is owned and maintained by a non-profit organization, is facing bankruptcy. The Mark Twain House & Museum is facing bankruptcy. The Mercantile Library of New York has sold its building and is looking for a new home.

Perhaps in these cases we are not only talking about the past as a predictor, but as a movement through horizontal space that re-senses our perceptions of the author and his or her literary work. When we visit these homes and imagine Wharton or Twain lolling on the terrace with a cup of tea, we create a literary moment. We write this as a short memoir, and a dialogue with the author.

The new media and our conception of the future will change that movement and our relationship with literary authors. If we don't visit the author’s home physically, we often do so as an imaginative construct with the help of two-dimensional media. Isn’t that what photography and film initiated? A visit to The Mark Twain House in Second Life, anyone? But what does it mean for our experience if we only visit in cyberspace? Read the first chapter in Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality. Eco visits the Museum of the City of New York to see a diorama of early New York, and then walks outside to see contemporary New York. Neither one then feels “real” anymore. He discusses the false sense of visit in the nineteenth century invention of photography. So what will a “visit” in cyberspace mean? And does it matter to a better understanding of Twain’s art?

In 1971, the village of Illiers, in France, where Proust spent his Easters and some summers and which he “immortalized” in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time as “Combray”, changed its name to Illiers-Combray as part of its commemoration of the centennial of Proust’s birth, thereby mixing fact and fiction. If some historians have cringed at such re-creations as Colonial Williamsburg and Civil War battle re-enactments (look out, the sesquicentennial of 1861 is around the corner), how will we react to “cyber-creations” that enable us to “walk through” early nineteenth century London and “greet” the Dashwoods?