Shirking the New Literacy
In late January, at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, Jonathan Franzen said something profoundly stupid. The superiority of printed books, he declared, lies in the fact that “someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”
The author of The Corrections and Freedom is an otherwise astute social observer—and a writer who, moreover, shows an admirable degree of care toward his art, as his infamous spat with Oprah’s Book Club and reportedly monkish work habits attest. But here he’s dead wrong. The mainstreaming of e-books is only one aspect of a much grander media shift we’ve been collectively navigating far longer than most of us realize—at least since McLuhan (who was, notably, trained as a literary critic) popularized the topic half a century ago. And it’s precisely Franzen’s “literature-crazed” set who ought to be the most involved—not to mention the best informed—in developing the new types of literacy this shift entails.
Denunciations of e-books by Franzen and other publishing insiders (prominent Spanish writer Lucía Etxebarría recently went on strike to protest electronic piracy) can smack of earlier moral panics that now seem absurd. The reader will recall, for instance, that imports of marijuana by sneaky Mexican migrants in the 1930s or lurid comic books published in the 1950s condemned entire generations of American youth to lives of gibbering madness. Anxieties about the degeneration of cognition or the drain on our nobler faculties supposedly affected by the advent of new media are as old as philosophy—as literature—itself. In the Phaedrus, Plato cautions that writing marks only the “semblance” of knowledge, and warns that the literate risk becoming “a burden to their fellows ... filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom.” Shortly after Gutenberg’s moment in the 15th century, the prospect of a printed and widely read vernacular Bible was deemed so deleterious to social order that its translation and distribution were enough to get William Tyndale burned (and not simply at the stake, but on one).
Or take photography, which was expected, not long after Daguerre, to make painting obsolete. Instead, artists originally trained as painters became some of the finest photographers of the 19th century, and the self-reflection and distillation of principle engendered by the new technology begat Impressionism. The mere possibility of photography changed its sister arts, just as the simple invention and existence of cinema forever altered theatre. And as little acknowledged as it is, literature has been in and of the digital age since at least the Second World War. Just try to imagine the stylistic and structural innovations—the flavor—of a Pynchon, a Calvino, or a DeLillo absent from the intellectual horizons opened up by Alan Turing (father of the modern computer) or before the ascendancy of what’s sometimes termed “screen culture.”
But should we worry, along with Franzen, that for true initiates electronic literature is “just not permanent enough”? Actually, it’s more permanent than ever—perhaps even a little too permanent. Thanks to legions of bunkered server farms, every last bit of digital expression—from the embarrassing comments you posted to a chat board as a teenager to the D.I.Y. porn your ex-partner promised no one else would ever see—will enjoy the kind of immortality only dreamed of by its printed forbearers. With his fears of perennial mutability, Franzen may have in mind something like the experience detailed by Nicholas Carr last December in the Wall Street Journal. After uploading a collection of essays to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, Carr was later able to reach in and tweak his electronic book, meaning that readers who opted to buy the print edition now own one of two versions of what’s ostensibly the same work. Not exactly unprecedented. Walt Whitman, anyone?
To be sure, wholehearted championing of the latest and flashiest is as purblind an approach as blanket dismissal, but the best critics—of whom Carr (whose The Shallows is a nuanced and well-considered discussion of the psychological effects of new media) is one—eschew suggesting that we ought to line up on one or the other side of the digital debate. E-books have prompted important questions about the nature of authorship, changing modes of attention, and the economics of an industry in crisis—issues that demand more from our literary elites than “better or worse” reductions.
When writers rail against what’s likely to be the most significant literary development in half a millennium, they aren’t just rehashing the same tired po-mo end-of-history alarums that have kept us bored for two generations. They’re abdicating a responsibility to keep exploring what it is to be human—to be emotive, connected beings. We don’t have to love the digital shift, but we do have an obligation to engage with it, to do our best to understand it, and to critique it intelligently. Anything less would be vulgar illiteracy.