Sunday, April 27, 2008

Technology and Literature

In reviewing Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night for The Observer, Peter Conrad ponders the effect of the internet revolution on literature, and seems to accept Manguel's premise that the effect of ebooks will be negative:
A book read on a screen has dematerialised; we can neither own nor love it, and if we can't hold it in our hands how can we absorb it into our minds?
It's an interesting point which connects with Will Self's recent rejection of the computer as a tool for writing. Earlier this week I made fun of the way Self talked about this, but there's some serious matter here: Self was saying, I think, that the computer and the manual typewriter make for different ways of thinking, and that the latter, more physical tool makes for a more rigorous way and one that he can better 'own'. Personally, I can't even use a typewriter for a first draft of fiction: rightly or wrongly I feel like many writers that those dreams in my head can only come out first through my wrist and my fountain pen onto those lovely smooth Pukka pads.

But it's not true for all writers. And though it's true that historically as readers our experience of books and their contents has been inextricably bound up with the physical - with their feel and look and smell - how can we say with any certainty that things can't change, that we won't find a new way of 'owning' and loving and absorbing books?

I've written before about the potential for the web - in particular digitization - to prolong the life of books and revive those which may have been forgotten, but this book sounds a note of warning:
Manguel is old, wise and sad enough to know that the future belongs to the users of the Kindle reading device and to oafish librarians who discard books as landfill after transferring their contents to disks or CD-Roms that may be illegible in a decade.
Funny, only yesterday my eye happened to land on the stacks of cassettes in my study, my own plays for Radio 4, and it hit me forcibly me that that technology is now so out of date that my plays, some of them prize-winning, a body of several years' busy work, are in danger of fading away for ever. I have no idea whether the BBC has converted its archive into new technology - I stopped writing radio plays when 'heart-warming' became a prime commissioning requirement - but it wouldn't surprise me if it hasn't.
Post a Comment