Last weekend I attended the Brooklyn Book Festival, an annual celebration of authors and books on the steps of Borough Hall in Brooklyn Heights. The festival features an outdoor Literary Marketplace as well as author readings and signings and discussion panels lead by various local literati.
Of particular interest was a panel called “Literature in the Digital Age.” The program’s description says it all: “How do new forms of media affect our literary cultures, and how do writers and publishers adapt to them?” The panelists, all published authors, wore other literary hats as well: literary magazine editor, book reviewer, and blogger.
This question of the relationship between technology and literature reminded me of an article that I had read recently in the Boston Globe. A New England prep school named Cushing Academy recently decided to get rid of all their library books and create an entirely digital learning center. Cushing’s new plan will allow easy access to millions of titles. The full text of the article can be read here.
This push to digitize content that was once available only in a bound book is exactly the kind of change the panelists at the Brooklyn Book Festival were speaking of. There is a great deal of ambivalence in the literary community over whether the digitization of books hinders or promotes literature.
Panelists at the BKBF agreed that the Internet is a medium that encourages having a short attention span. The almost constant clicking between windows promotes a style of absorbing information that is in many ways antithetical to how you would read, say, War and Peace.
Yet the issue is not so straightforward that we can say that the Internet and books are incompatible. Many working in book publishing want to see the industry keep up with the increasing digitization of other forms of media like newspapers and magazines. True, Tolstoy and Twitter fall on pretty much opposite ends of the intellectual commitment spectrum, but many of us are hopeful that publishing can accommodate a changing marketplace. Technology gives us the ability to promote our titles to captive audiences through social media sites and offer books that can be purchased and downloaded with the click of a mouse for those too busy to trek to a bricks-and-mortar store.
Personally, I am for anything that gets students – or anyone – to read more. Whether it’s a browsing a real-live library or reading a funny tweet that encourages you to pick up a good book, the important thing is that you come to that book in the first place. I sympathize with the concern that books shouldn’t have to compete for anyone’s attention span over the streaming updates of their RSS feeds, but I find it overly pessimistic to say that the splintering of the American attention span will lead to the demise of literature. People crave good stories: there will always be a place for good books.
There is much to be said on this topic, but I’m curious to know what you think. Educational institutions can often be the first to adopt new information and technology practices. Please feel free to post your comments below.