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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."

Another somewhat surprising point of consensus among the contributors to The Edge of the Precipice is that we are enjoying a whole new love affair with the old-fashioned physical book. A few years ago, Michael Austin's offering, Why I Read War and Peace on a Kindle (and Bought the Book When I Was Done), would have been a valuable, brave intervention. Back then – when headlines blared that e-books were outselling paperbacks, when suddenly everyone on the bus had their head buried in a Kobo, when I received three Kindles for Christmas – back then, e-ink seemed poised to obsolesce the codex in a matter of years.

Now, as sales of dedicated e-readers dwindle, as my three Kindles collect dust on a neglected shelf, it's hard to imagine how we allowed ourselves to get so worked up. But e-readers did teach us something: in their patent inadequacy – in all their slow-loading, thumb-cracking, percentage-bar clunkiness – they showed us how perfect a literary medium the book is. It's a paradoxical time, one in which the oft-announced death of the book coincides with a new fever of bibliophilia. Book-love is certainly evident in every corner of this volume, and Vincent Giroud's words are representative: "Holding a book is a pleasure I am not prepared to give up, much in the same way I would not be tempted to ingest my food in the form of tablets." Clever pun, that.

What is not changing – and what no technological revolution can upset – is our collective human thirst for stories. Giroud worries that if fewer people read literature, the "cultural references that bind us together" will be lost, naming Prince Andrei, Julien Sorel and Lord Jim as threatened specimens of narrative social glue. The response to this seems obvious enough: Though they come from a variety of media, Princess Zelda, Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker are surely able substitutes. As Stephen Brockmann points out, the narrative worlds of film, television and video games have developed from templates established in literature. Even if literary reading decreases in relative popularity, literature will never die out completely because it is our longest serving, most highly developed form of storytelling. And storytelling is as essential to us as dreaming.

Which brings us to From Literature to Biterature, Peter Swirski's protracted thought experiment on the possibility of fiction written by computers. What Swirski has to tell us about the history of artificial intelligence is, in fact, rather heartening. "After more than half a century," he writes, "backed by tens of billions of research dollars, the sharpest brains in the field have achieved practically nothing." The most advanced specimens in AI still can't pass the Turing Test – still can't convince human interlocutors they're conversing with anything but a machine. Human authors have little to fear from "computhors" for the time being – they can return to worrying about their declining human readerships.

This doesn't stop Swirski from speculating on how an eventual machine-authored "biterature" might distinguish itself from human-authored literature. With their inorganic needs and desires, computers would write sonnets not for love but for uninterrupted power and efficient antivirus software. To a machine equipped with infrared sensors, darkness would hold none of the mystery or menace that it does for human eyes, and so would carry a vastly different symbolic weight in any fiction it might produce.

What Swirski never adequately explains, however, is why intelligent computers would want to write – or read – stories in the first place.

The fact is that they wouldn't. Which brings us back to dreaming.

The next time you feel yourself giving in to the sometimes overwhelming urge to panic about the fate of literature in the digital age, follow this simple remedy: remember that you dream. For that is ironclad proof, on par with the Turing Test, that literature – that narrative art in whatever form – will never die.

Humans, strange creatures that we are, make sense of our lives by telling stories. In the space between each day and the next, we refresh our minds by concocting the most fantastic and elaborate fictions. We spend roughly a third of our lives thus, re-arranging our scattered experiences into stories.

That we do it at all is bizarre and inexplicable. But as long as we do it, we will crave stories – human stories, stories that speak to us – in our waking life. The Internet, powerful as it is, cannot change that.

Adam Hammond is the Michael Ridley Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Guelph and the author of the forthcoming book Literature in the Digital Age: A Critical Introduction.

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