The Book of Clouds
The Boston Phoenix, November 10, 2010
A hundred years from now, how will literary historians deal with 21st-century authors like Tao Lin?
Earlier this fall, the 27 year old released his second novel, Richard Yates. Named for the famous writer, the autobiographical novel concerns two lovebirds named Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning; Lin peppers his narrative with their e-mails, text messages, phone calls, and gchats.
Writing in The London Review of Books, David Haglund said, "Lin captures certain qualities of contemporary life better than many writers in part because he dispenses with so much that is expected of current fiction." Lin was reviewed (more tepidly) in the Sunday Book Review. Seattle's The Stranger even gave his diffident essay, "Great American Novelist," the cover.
But before the laurels, Lin was more famous as a dedicated, classic Internet troll.
He came on the scene in 2005 with a blog called "Reader of Depressing Books"; launched a massive, if tongue-in-cheek, e-mail publicity campaign (e-mailing reviewers in the person of non-existent interns, sending query letters filled with obvious lies); and created pseudonymous screen names with which he commented on his own blog and the blogs of others. He started online feuds with a number of literary tastemakers. He called n+1 editor Marco Roth a hamster. Gawker's Emily Gould called Lin "retarded." His previous books include a self-published volume of his own unedited gchat transcripts.
All those blog posts, e-mails, and comments—not to mention MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter outpourings—far outnumber the word count of Lin's total printed work. And it will all probably be around for centuries, persisting in Internet archives and databases and hard drives. How will future scholars, intent on understanding who Lin was and what he meant, possibly sift through that much junk?
At the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study's "Why Books?" conference two weeks ago—a summit on the future of books and their format, storage, retrieval, circulation, transmission, reception and use—Matthew Kirschenbaum, a digital humanities scholar at the University of Maryland, addressed this question.
Until recently, Kirschenbaum explained, a critic's primary sources were limited to manuscripts, drafts, notes, journals, and correspondence, known to scholars as the "textual condition." Now, thanks to personal computers, the Internet, social networking sites, and multi-platform e-books, the textual condition has grown a little more baroque. And that's just the beginning of the havoc that new media will be visiting on our old friend, the librarian.
Kirschenbaum listed a bevy of sources many of the academics, librarians and literary professionals in the audience hadn't considered: print and electronic editions, including pirated e-books; Amazon customer reviews and sales rank; keyword searches; publishers' Web sites and Amazon pages; book trailers and resulting YouTube comments; online versions of book reviews and online-only reviews; related blog and Facebook posts; and tweets.
Yeah, that's right. Tweets.
Contemplating the magnitude of the electronic footprint elicited audible gasps from the audience. One exhausted librarian asked, "Is there no such thing as ephemera?"
Too much information
Which is why Lin is a future critic's nightmare. After collating Lin's avowed social-networking activity, a professor of Tao Lin Studies would need to hunt down his many fake screen names and trace how and when he deployed them. She would need to read his text messages, his e-mails, and hundreds of hours of instant messages, then cross-reference them with Richard Yates to see what he mined for novelistic inspiration.
On top of all that, our professor would have to study what little Tao Lin kept to himself. As Kirschenbaum pointed out, a personal computer is a complete writing environment. Contemplate your laptop: your iTunes library, your digital photos, your pirated movies, your desktop background, and the way you organize these files. If you are or will become a famous writer, all of these will be of the utmost importance to those who will one day study you.
As Kirschenbaum noted, Emory University has four of Salman Rushdie's personal computers in the world's first virtually searchable exhibit. Visitors park at work stations, where they have access to different versions of Rushdie's manuscripts and the computer games he played while writing them. "Inappropriate materials have been redacted," Kirschenbaum said, referring to personal e-mails and, for all we know, naked pictures of Padma Lakshmi.
Of course, digital information seems delicate—as knows anyone who's ever accidentally deleted a term paper. Hard drives crash. Blogs get 404'd. Phones fall into toilets. Hardware degrades (remember floppy discs?), software becomes outmoded (remember WordPerfect?).
But not to worry. "Electronic data are not any more fragile than any other form of inscription," Kirschenbaum said, noting that the pencil was once controversial because it can be erased.
"There is no computation without representation in digital media," he added. To access these electronic imprints, archivists are using state-of-the-art forensic software.
Of course, this assumes that there will be critics in the future, and that they will still be interested in literature. Another quasi-autobiographical epistolary novel released this fall suggests they might not be.
Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story follows a hapless New Yorker named Lenny Abramov, the "last reader on Earth." Abramov's love for books alienates him utterly from a hyper-consumerist, post-digital society.
Abramov works for a company that sells eternal life. In one memorable scene, his boss dresses him down:
Those thoughts, these books, they are the problem . . . That's why all those young whizzes in the Eternity Lounge want to shove a carb-filled macaroon up your ass. Yes, I overheard that. I have a new beta eardrum. And who can blame them, Lenny? You remind them of death. You remind them of a different, earlier version of our species.
Shteyngart's dystopian vision resonated—the novel spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But if the Amazon sales figures for the Kindle are to be believed, readers aren't all that conflicted about reading on electronic devices.
Elizabeth Long, a sociologist at Rice University, said as much in her Why Books? talk. "Whenever these kinds of technological changes sweep into a field of cultural production, there is a lot of chaos [that] tends to divide into prophets of gloom and prophets of light," she said. "Prophets of both tendencies have been talking about the 'End of the Book' at least since the beginning of electronic media."
Bypassing the prophets, Long surveyed a number of readers to determine how they felt about reading in the digital age. Instead of teeth-gnashing or hair-tearing (or, in the case of some indie rockers, returning to the literary equivalent of the cassette tape), many of Long's readers have adapted quickly to the available technologies. Unlike the pros, everyday readers tune in at will to the broader technological discussion while carrying on reading in whatever way makes them happiest.
The smell of data
Long spoke of how some of the readers she interviewed saw e-readers as "travel accessories." Others felt crowded by their book collections and saw their e-readers as a way to simplify their material possessions. The Abramovs of the bunch, she said, were apprehensive because their reading material now lives in a cloud. To them, the solid presence of a book offered reassurance.
Many of Long's subjects spoke lyrically on the sensual pleasures of handling books, rhapsodizing about the feel of the pages and the pretty covers. They said they love the smell of bookstores and libraries, too, and how their bountiful corridors promise infinite knowledge. "The tone is one of pleasurable sensory immersion," she said.
And displaying their personal libraries to visitors is a way of expressing their inner selves. "How can we tell who people are if we can't look at their bookshelves?" Long asked. In certain socio-economic circles, displaying the right books is important. "Legitimate" literature has always gotten pride of place, Long noted. "Mystery, science fiction, and especially pornography are sentenced to back corners, stuffed away out of sight," she said.
Long spoke to one publisher who speculated that those books will soon disappear from peoples' shelves into the cloud. Romances will likely be the first to go. In addition to being stigmatized, romance fans consume far more volumes than those interested in other genres; now they can get rid of those untidy stacks of mass- market paperbacks. Out too with the leather book jackets that some romance readers, while on the bus, use to conceal the rippling pirates and heaving damsels on their books' covers.
So will all physical books someday disappear entirely? At present, the answer seems to be no. Earlier in the day, Harvard computer scientist Stuart Shieber raised the specter of Jack Valenti, who in 1982, at the outset of home recording, memorably denounced videos in front of a congressional panel: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone. "People like to say that Valenti was wrong about the VCR—home video became a huge and sustaining new revenue source for Hollywood. But he wasn't wrong about the implications of the VCR and its capacity for unlimited free copying—which has haunted the recorded-media industries ever since. Part of the reason VCRs and DVDs were successful is that Hollywood tightly controlled the technology: delaying the release of consumer machines that would make it easy to duplicate videotapes, copy-protecting the movies themselves, lobbying government for imposing stiff fines and high-profile litigation against consumers who engaged in the sharing of copyrighted content.
The Internet, DVDs, CDs, and broadband have borne out that Valenti was right: given the means, a significant sector of the public will freely distribute movies to each other in ways that are eating away at Hollywood's profits. The music industry, whose products could be freely exchanged on the Internet even before the rise of broadband, has been decimated.
An old story, a new technology
So far, books have been spared—not because they are hard to share (a digital book file of War and Peace is smaller than an mp3 of a three-minute pop song) but because until recently they have been difficult to digitize. Amazon has changed that: the bestseller list now arrives in digital form, ripe for piracy. Motivated people can build their own digital book scanners for less than $200. And Google is shouldering the massive expense of digitizing the world's books at an astonishing rate.
More recent developments—Google Books' class-action settlement and the production of cheaper, less ugly e-readers—have made the book the subject of international debate for the first time since perhaps the 1930s, when Penguin launched the first line of paperbacks.
While those who study books have yet to reach the alarmism of Jack Valenti, Harvard professors Ann Blair and Leah Price were excited enough to start planning Why Books? three years ago. And their prognosis—gleaned from a perspective that sweeps centuries and continents—isn't entirely dire.
"Different technologies come together," said Peter Stallybrass, a University of Pennsylvania humanities professor whose talk closed the conference.
"In one sense," he said, "of course you could say that printed books displaced an earlier technology, manuscripts . . . but very few people in 1800 were writing Bibles [by hand]. Although there were people writing Bibles, although they were a very small group." This got a laugh from the librarians.
"Another example of a bad opposition is the notion of orality versus literacy and written script cultures," he said. "As if what we're doing today isn't lectures, and 'lecture' is such a bizarre word because it means 'reading.'" Bigger laugh. "A lecturer speaks, but the actual word from the French means reading."