Monday, January 30, 2012

Eternal, ephemeral text

Dismissing Jonathan Franzen's sense that electronic text is "just not permanent enough" and his fear that future readers may lose "that hunger for something permanent and unalterable," Andrew Sullivan sees literary immortality -- for all?
Hanging out in some iCloud somewhere, the eBook will be eternal. And also more accessible to readers.
I've often had kindred thoughts, and worked some of them out when I was in children's poetry-writing mode. Below, three variations, the first two written about 2005-06 and the last one about 1994:

Mission Accomplished?

Homer's heroes thirst for glory--
to live forever in song and story.
Hector, Achilles, Odysseus,
fighting each other, fighting death,
clinging to words, on scroll or page
handed down from age to age,
saved now on the Internet -
think that they're immortal yet?

What If?

What if human lifetimes double
before I'm 75?
What if they double again and again
and each time I'm still alive?

What if we're all electronically saved
on some future Internet
and email not only our thoughts but ourselves wherever we want to get?

What if we move through time as well
and take on any shape
or shed our bods and morph to gods --
not bad for a naked ape.

A Good Dream

I dreamed I saved my sister on disk--
brother, was I relieved.
If any harm should come to her
she could be retrieved.

The disk drive whirred
and imprinted her mind:
the way she looks at me
and points at things, and says a word
or sometimes two or three.

I held her close, and she was there,
but somewhere else as well:
stored on some great motherboard --
look and touch and smell.

I think, btw, that Sullivan is refusing to understand Franzen. The worry is not that given books (The Odyssey, The Corrections) will literally become inaccessible -- it's that the permeable and shapeless world of hypertext will change sensibilities, so that writers eschew long-form writing and readers long-form reading (with no links or distractions or glosses or remixes or mashups).  I suppose that the book as we know it was shaped largely by economic forces -- how large a block of text (say 200-800 pp) could profitably be placed between two covers (or four volumes, whatever) and marketed. With electronic text, the difference between 20 pp and 200 becomes arbitrary. and with the text hyperlinked, much of the argument/exposition can be outsourced to others or to one's earlier self.  Then of course, there's multimedia -- no doubt our tastes, sensibilities, wiring, possibilities and productions will change at a dizzying pace.

But just as I more or less trust that Steven Pinker is right that we're becoming less violent, I believe too that Steven Johnson is right and we're becoming smarter and more creative. I wouldn't go quite so far as to affirm that Everything Bad is Good for You -- but human experience suggests that what's new is likelier to be good for us than bad.  Though of course, past performance is no guarantee of future success.

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