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The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age

Edited by Paul Socken

McGill-Queens, 244 pages, $34.95

From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution

By Peter Swirski

McGill-Queens, 252 pages, $29.95If the experts are to be believed, dear reader, you are doing something quite exceptional right now. Namely, you are reading.

Amidst repeated warnings that Google is making us stupid – that our Internet-besotted, smartphone-tethered generation is the dumbest on record – reading stands as the arch-example. The difficulty of reading – particularly “deep,” “serious” literary reading – is advanced, again and again, as concrete proof of the digital deterioration of our minds.

The weight of these arguments has made us an intensely self-conscious generation of readers. Opening a novel is for us not just an aesthetic experience, but also a trial of our will, a measure of our concentration, and a litmus test of our changing culture.

But, historically speaking, new literary technologies have always been met with skepticism, and often hysteria. People have been freaking out about the death of literature literally since the time literature was invented – ever since Socrates bashed the alphabet in Plato’s Phaedrus. Since then, the printing press, the paperback, the typewriter, the telegraph, radio, film, television – all were supposed to have killed off “real” deep reading, with disastrous, wide-ranging social consequences.

The sky has fallen on literature so many times that we can be forgiven for approaching the latest round of digital doom-saying with some skepticism of our own. For all the protestations that “it’s really different this time,” sometimes it seems like people just get off on prophesying gloom.

The titles and topics of these two books certainly suggest as much. Paul Socken’s anthology The Edge of the Precipice and Peter Swirski’s From Literature to Biterature have much in common: a publisher (McGill-Queens), a theme (the fate of literature in a digital age), and alarming titles suggesting a dystopian future. They share all this despite coming at the subject from completely different, mutually exclusive directions. The Edge of the Precipice asks whether there will be any literary readers left in ten or twenty years, whether digital distractions will have so thoroughly permeated the literary mind as to eradicate it. Swirski takes for granted the persistence of a literary reading public, but still finds much to fret about: In his imagined future, one in which the business of storytelling has been taken over by computer algorithms, it is writers who are extinct.

This much is clear: the human imagination, whatever its digital handicaps, remains sufficiently robust to imagine such scenarios in vivid detail. And publishers are betting on the continued existence of a pool of readers ready to gobble them up. But it is also clear that since we are ourselves living through the “digital age,” since we have no distance from it, we have no idea how it will turn out, and no idea if it really is “different this time.” All we have is speculation.

As a source of speculation, The Edge of the Precipice is exceptionally useful. Socken’s editorial imperative is clear: assemble a distinguished cast of commentators, ask them why we should still read literature in the digital age, and publish whatever they come up with. This is a volume without a thesis or an editorially sanctioned point of view; it offers a grab bag of opinions.

Taken together in all their contradictions, these essays do an admirable job of laying out the situation of literary reading in the digital age – of separating what is genuinely changing from what is not. Despite the thrust of its title, the answers are surprisingly optimistic.

One point of consensus is that it is getting harder and harder to muster the deep attention that literature demands. In one sense, the Internet has made it easier to access literary materials – particularly the free, out-of-copyright materials found on sites like Project Gutenberg. But by speeding up the rhythm of life – and making it more difficult to adjust ourselves to the longer, slower rhythms of reading – the digital age has made genuine “access” more elusive. The upside is that these moments of true access, when they come, are all the more magical. As Sven Birkerts – author of 1994’s The Gutenberg Elegies and the dean of debates on digital reading – puts it, “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won.”

There is agreement too that prolonged periods of solitude – prerequisite for most forms of literary reading – are becoming scarcer and scarcer. In the liveliest and most original contribution to the volume, Drew Nelles also turns this apparent deficit into an asset. “When you read,” he notes, “you are by yourself, in a radical way – momentarily solitary and unplugged.” The reading experience suffers from any attempt at breaking this radical solitude. The two most conspicuous analog efforts at making reading social – readings and book clubs – are, Nelles says, “also the most irritating.” Digital efforts like Goodreads likewise “feel all wrong,” smacking of “enforced sociability.” For Nelles, the asocial nature of reading should, in a culture beset by sociality, be embraced. He closes his piece with a challenge: pick up a book, read it, but don’t talk about it – not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on Goodreads. “Keep it a secret – your secret. … Consider the independence this book gives you. Learn to be alone again.”

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