June 7, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

Thoughts on the Virtual Iliad

Meg’s recent entry on the Virtual Iliad got me to thinking about a question that has come up in several forms recently: what do we mean when we talk about a book? The Wired Magazine image of a robot carefully scanning the Venetus A, the oldest extant copy of Homer’s text in the Public Library of St. Mark in Venice, to create a “3-D“ virtual book,” is at once wonderful and absurd. It’s hard not to think of the old Saturday Night Live parody of the virtual book, in which a reader dons a bulky pair of VR goggles in order to read Moby Dick. (“Call me Ishmael” appears, and then the page slowly turns“ For a more contemporary version of this absurd marriage of high tech and book tech, click here or here.) But the virtual Venetus will serve a very real purpose, making this fragile handwritten text, the primary source for all modern editions of the poem, available to scholars around the world, and so bringing us one step closer to the promise of a universal library in which rare texts are available to anyone with an internet connection. And yet, I can’t help thinking that what we’re seeing in this story is more broadly metaphoric, as we gaze back with nostalgia at the technologies of the past and forward with both wonder and fear at what lies ahead.

The Iliad emerges out of a pretextual age; it is, in both its origin and form, an oral text, full of mnemonic cues and repeated phrases that mark the bard’s passage through his epic story. It is a tale to be sung over many nights after the fighting and the feasting are done, and so a means by which an ancient culture’s history, beliefs, and heroic ideals were transmitted directly from the singer of tales to an audience that was expected to live those values. At least one scholar has speculated that we can glimpse the beginning of the literate age in the transcription of this oral tale, marking the shift from an early information technology ??? the singer of tales, who speaks to all within the sound of his voice — to the one that would supplant it ??? the writer, who can speak through the strange witchcraft of letters to men a thousand miles away and a thousand years from then. In this virtual Iliad, we see that shift taking place again, as the old technologies of writing (paper, ink, glue) are themselves supplanted by more efficient, but perhaps more ephemeral, forms of digital publication. I’ll probably never get the chance to see the Venetus A manuscript in person, but in a few months, I’ll be able to read it on the Homer Multitext Project (provided, of course, that I can summon up enough of my failing Greek).

For me, this raises questions Kenyon Review Editor David Lynn and I have been kicking around in conversations over the last year as we try to imagine the future of literary publishing in the digital age. We’re not alone in having the conversation, of course: publishers everywhere are terrified by the prospect of the death of the book and scrambling to imagine what the role of the printed word will be in the future. For The Kenyon Review, that means finding new and better ways to reach readers on the internet, even as we continue to put out the best magazine we can. (I watched a girl at my daughter’s high school receive a copy of The Kenyon Review as an academic prize last night. There’s still something important about the book: you wouldn’t send her a URL to reward academic excellence. But perhaps that award was purely ceremonial. That girl, like the rest of her generation, might actually be more likely to read what she finds by clicking on that URL.)

I confess that I’m fascinated by the idea of the e-book, because it signals a sea change to something rich and strange in the way that literature will be published and consumed. The technology we’re all told will soon arrive, which will revolutionize the experience of reading the way that the iPod has revolutionized the way we buy (or not) music, hasn’t appeared yet: the current contenders for the status of the breakthrough product that will put the e-book in every urban commuter’s hands are still bulky, expensive, and awkward to use. (Check out this “personal video review” of the clumsily-named iRex iLiad E-Reader. There’s a wonderful visual irony to that post-it note stuck onto the table beside the slowly-loading iLiad, and the deadpan way the hand appears at long intervals to request the next function. While the Sony Reader is clearly quicker and easier to use, I confess I feel no attraction to it the way that one can lust for either a beautiful book or a really cool gadget.) But that breakthrough product is clearly coming: when the right combination of intuitive design (anyone listening, Apple?) and price hits the market, the logic of moving to a device that can hold many backpacks full of books in an object the size and weight of a paperback will be inescapable.

Will something be lost when this change happens? Absolutely. One of my strongest childhood memories is the smell of old books. Not expensive old books, but cheap paperback editions of Russian novels that I pulled off my parents’ shelves, or a Penguin Classics copy of The Upanishads, in which the scent of paper, glue, and dust somehow came to be equated in my mind with spiritual enlightenment. (And so my fate was sealed.) I can’t imagine that I’ll ever enjoy reading an e-book the way that I take pleasure in a book, but at the same time I have to wonder if this isn’t the nature of all such changes. Wasn’t something lost when the singer of tales no longer spoke The Iliad aloud? Writing itself changed the experience of that poem: reading is a solitary experience, sending each man into his own inner exile and an essentially private engagement with the gods and heroes who populate the poem. How different it must have been to hear the poem spoken aloud! One might argue that there’s an important ideological difference in experiencing that story privately, rather than hearing the articulation of the culture’s shared values at a crowded feast. The age of the individual begins, in these terms, with literacy and the private imagination created by reading.

Could there be as profound an ideological change in the shift to e-books? Again, absolutely. The business of publishing has always been as fragile as the objects it produces. If you have to print thousands of copies of a book to get it in front of readers browsing the bookstore shelves, then the risk is high for every book published and production costs alone dictate an editorial policy that caters to an established market for genre fiction or celebrity memoir. If you eliminate the need to print, store, and ship books, as the rise of the digital download has eliminated the need to buy CDs for my daughter’s generation, then what emerges is a literary marketplace that isn’t dominated by mass-market publishers, but open to small publishers driven by a passion for good writing, much like the independent music labels that offer to stuff your iPod with three-chord garage bands, Islamo-Celtic Punk, and guttural Bulgarian throat singers. What’s lost? Big publishing houses (who’d mourn?), big author advances (anyone gotten one recently?), and big chain bookstores, which would have to dispense with the fiction altogether and complete their transformation into Starbucks. Yes, writers would find it harder to make a living from writing, but how many writers do you know who can do that now? More importantly, publishing might shift from the marketing power of media conglomerates, which make editorial decisions based on what will look best on the balance sheets they send off to Frankfurt, to something much harder to see from a corporate office: words that catch the imagination of the individual reader. Ideologically, this would move us even further from the common cultural values articulated by the singer of tales and toward the isolated individual imagination. But would that be such a bad thing, if our “common cultural values” are those determined by mass-market capitalism?

I’ll miss bookstores when they go, but I’m not sure that we’re really watching the extinction of the whole species. As with all extinctions, the small rodents will live on: all the record stores have vanished from my local “village centre” mall, but there’s still one near the big university campus across town, a used record store where scruffy guys still gather to argue over old vinyl copies of Anarchy in the UK and Their Satanic Majesties Request (with the original 3-D cover!). If all the business people get out of the book business, what’s left but writers and readers?

Like all prophecies, this vision is probably na??ve, but I can’t help feeling that good literature has always been a niche market. Nonprofit publishers devoted to quality, like the Kenyon Review, have kept the candle burning as all the big New York publishers piled into the hand basket and hit the down button. And that will remain true, no matter where the words come from or how we read them. What we need isn’t books, but texts: not the fragile containers of paper, but the carefully-chosen words within. If readers wandering the endless souk of the internet arrive at a website like The Kenyon Review or Words without Borders, it’s not because they’re the biggest stores in town, but because you can trust that someone has used real editorial judgment to find you words worth reading. That’s what we don’t get from the mass-market publishers now, but it’s what we hunger for when all the feasting is done and we turn to the singer of tales.

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