Saturday, March 07, 2009

Bizarre ...

... Resisting the Kindle. (Hat tips, Dave Lull and Lee Lowe.)

I was in a crowd at a poetry reading recently, eavesdropping on the conversation behind me. Somebody referenced a poem by Wallace Stevens but couldn’t think of the line. Her neighbor said “Wait—” and proceeded to Blackberry (yes, a verb) the needed words. It took only seconds. Everyone bobbed and nodded—it was the best of all worlds.
My response was less sanguine. I imagined an info-culture of the near future composed entirely of free-floating items of information and expression, all awaiting their access call. I pictured us gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens (and every other artist and producer of work) as the historical flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is the merely the sum total of his facts—a writer no longer cohering in historical imagination but fragmented into retrievable bits of information.

Exactly why immediate access to information about a writer would cause us to let go of said writer as a "historical flesh-and-blood entity" is utterly unclear to me. This would somehow not happen if one had to go to the trouble of looking up a line of poetry in a book not readily at hand, as opposed to googling it?

"I concede, this view is apocalyptic." No, it isn't. It's simply pessimistic , whiny and reactionary. And it's time people stopped appropriating the final book of the New Testament in order to accentuate the negative. The point of Revelation (Apocalypse), is not the destruction of the world, but its transfiguration into a new heaven and earth. Always good to read to the end.

Here's another tale of change: New Hampshire Cellarholes.


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  2. CORRECTED COMMENTS: Somewhere in your intriguing blog entry I detect a not-so-happy commentary on Google. I confess to being seduced by the convenience of Google, but I remain disturbed about its artificially authoritative usurpation of more traditional means of inquiry. I urge (without success) that students in my literature classes avoid Google when doing their reading and studying, unless they wish to be consigned to one of Dante's lower rings, Nevertheless, it never fails that students in a classroom discussion will boldly offer what they think is their singular analyses of a poem, but--when pressed on the matter--they wind up confessing that Google was the source for their insight. I close with this rhetorical question as my reaction to Google (and Blackberry): What on earth is happening to intellectual curiosity and the thrill of reading and discovery?

  3. Two different issues, I think. Birkerts seem to be complaining simply because of the ease of finding some information via technology. And I am quite happy to look something up at the computer without having to get up from what I am doing, find a particular volume and look something up that way.
    That said, Google ought never to be a substitute for your own reading and thinking, which is what students are supposed to be learning. In my day, they would look interpretations up in books. Today Google speeds the process for them. If caught either way they deserve that reservation in Dante's lower depths. Better a lousy explication of your own than somebody else's, however brilliant.

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  5. (Another typographical error forces me to include a corrected posting, so I apologize for cluttering your mailbox and blog with my poor keyboarding.)
    You said: "Better a lousy explication of your own than somebody else's, however brilliant." I must warn you now that I am intent upon stealing that advisory statement and using it on students in the future (though I will give proper attribution). Please do not think poorly of me for being such a bold-faced thief. In any event, with respect to the effectiveness of that advice to students, I do not know if it will make a difference? Time will tell.

  6. Also in an Atlantic "Dispatch," Matthew Battle, a librarian, writes In Defense of the Kindle.

  7. "You've chosen the right word in "reactionary," Frank, but comments like the one you cite also suggest someone who hasn't thought seriously about the conditions under which texts survive across time. When medievalists read a given text, often they don't know who wrote it; its historical context is frequently debatable; they're unlikely to be reading it in its original form, i.e., on vellum folios; and the version that survives may be decades or even centuries older than any copy the original author saw or touched.

    Often derided as stodgy or conservative, medievalists and classicists have been way ahead of other literary types in embracing new technology and in having the conceptual framework to understand texts "fragmented into retrievable bits of information." The author of that piece means well, but he's blinded by his own modern cultural prejudices regarding authors and books.

  8. So Sven is farther behind than I thought. He has still to catch up with the Middle Ages. As for my remark, R.T., take it, it's yours!