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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, April 11, 2005

Interactive Reading

Posted by John Holbo on 04/11/05 at 09:46 PM

Nice essay at Conversational Readings about Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies. Birkerts, reasonably, sees the novel as threatened by the computer: “The book dead-ends us in ourselves, whereas the screen is a sluice into the collective stratum, the place where all facts are known and all lore is encoded.” Esposito concurs:

This is an essential point. Often, discussions of the so-called death of literature revolve around false distinctions between our age and previous ones; e.g. significantly more people read serious novels in the past, or people have less leisure time for novels nowadays. Birkerts gets at a very real, and very important distinction: Our idea of how leisure activities should engage us and where they should take us has changed. With the internet, there is more expectation of being drawn into something interactive, something part of a thriving, changing web. This, of course, is not what we are given to expect books to do.

Esposito concludes with nice thoughts about how, for many of us, blogs have changed this by making our books presumptively ‘interactive’. We read with the presumption of conversing with at least a few others, if we care to.

So go have a conversation with Esposito about Birkerts, if you care to. (I’ve been meaning to read Birkerts. I like Birkerts, despite that stupid review of Atwood for the NY Times, saying SF can never be good.)

I realize saying it is a good thing to make literature ‘interactive’ exposes me to mockery. Let me do the worst to myself, lest it be done by others. Obviously my dream is a hypertext rewrite of Remembrance of Things Past as a “plan your own adventure” novel. If you would like Marcel to smell the pink hawthorn blossoms, turn to p. 587; if you would like Marcel to smell the white hawthorn blossoms, turn to p. 435. Marcel should be pictured as a scrappy looking freckled kid in Wrangler jeans. Thus will the novel be saved.


Now Belle reminds me that this joke - which we’ve been embelishing at home - started life in some comment thread at CT. (This is what my life has come to. All my jokes have already been told in comments elsewhere. Sigh.) Actually, I think the original was my Derek Parfit “Reasons and Persons” as a plan your own philosophy book. With Parfit wearing Wrangler jeans.

By John Holbo on 04/12/05 at 07:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t buy it at all.  First, the notion that books dead-end the readers just seems wildly and woefully wrong, especially from an ostensible defender of print. 

Second, if the internets are in competition with the book, it’s over a very small slice of a much larger info/entertainment market. To the extent the novel in particular has been in trouble over recent decades (if it is), it’s because of more obvious competitors, which aren’t any more interactive--movies and especially TV. (The latter brings happiness, you know.  http://www.iht.com/articles/2004/12/02/news/mood.html)

Even in the great age of the novel, its entertainment appeal was eclipsed by theater, I believe.  Print fiction flourished because, given theater’s obvious distribution problems, books and magazines remained efficient means of delivering entertainment.  Now, not so much.  Books as art and entertainment survive in niche markets for distinctive kinds of pleasures.

Dick Ohman’s excellent book Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century (which argues for the 1896 birth of the advertising driven mass circulation magazine as the main origin of mass culture) points out that even as the art novel was taking off in the U.S., book fiction’s share of the overall publishing market was in relative decline--getting left in the shade by the exponential growth of magazine publising. And that was before radio, movies, tv, etc.  100 years down the road it may be that literary publishing is in competition with the internet because the relatively small public that relishes the pleasures of print also likes the computer.  But aren’t those people big information consumers?  Is there evidence that book sales to them in particular have fallen off?

By on 04/12/05 at 10:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I reviewed the Gutenberg Elegies when it came out in 1995. Hard to know which is more dated, Bikerts’ views of computers (he now edits an online literary journal, btw) or my critiques. The latter I’m sure, but only just:


If you want to see what’s happening with electronic literature, try here:


“With the internet, there is more expectation of being drawn into something interactive, something part of a thriving, changing web. This, of course, is not what we are given to expect books to do.”

Please. This is completely ahistorical. The kind of reading Birkerts fetishized, and which is being recycled here is historically quite specific. Books have always been digital and indexical (in the most literal sense of the terms), interactive, hands on. Look at early modern commonplace books or the desks scribes used to hold *multiple books* open at once while they read and wrote simultaneously. More here if you like:


By on 04/12/05 at 08:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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