Digitally exploding the canon

In my class on periodicals we've spent the past two weeks reading all the scholarly articles on theory to give us a good background in the historical and social contexts of magazines. The most recent of these articles brings up something that as an English major, I always hesitated to talk about, fearing to sound juvenile for not talking about the deep meaning of the literature: the physical forms and material characteristics of what we read.

The paper, ink, font, pictures, page size, binding, cover art, etc. make up the aesthetic value of a book, magazine, or newspaper. But as we move further into the twenty-first century, we need to stop and think about the aesthetic value of digital texts. The internet has provided us with a multitude of ways to store and archive written works, which is wonderful to conserve our history as well as save paper. But what is the actual emotional and aesthetic experience of reading a newspaper, magazine, or even a novel on a computer screen?

Personally, I hate it. I tried to give sites like a chance and read a novel in installments sent to my e-mail, but I couldn't even get through one. There's something about the physical experience of holding a book and turning its pages that I will never be able to live without. Due to the vast amount of literary material that is available these days, it makes a lot of sense for it to be stored in cyberspace, but we are creating entirely new dilemmas that only future generations will be able to sort out.

In the past, things have only made it into the canon if they were reprinted in more than one edition or magazine. With the permanency of the internet, anyone can self publish and have it preserved for an indefinite future. This is going to dramatically change the face of what we consider literature and the kinds of historical documents that will be available to our great-great-great-great grandchildren. Is this going to create an archaeologist's dream or a literary nightmare?

1 comment about "Digitally exploding the canon".
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  1. Ricky Munoz from Fuji Xerox Philippines Inc., September 15, 2008 at 8:13 p.m.

    I agree that books are hard to replace for the reading experience. More interesting is the fact that the form of the publication has on the author. Writing is generally done with an end product in mind, and the way we write novels, short stories and poetry is influenced by how we expect it to appear on a printed page, and the reading habits and methods we expect the reader to assume.

    A web page creates a different challenge for readbility. Usability studies continously point out how people tend to scan pages rather than read them unless the content is particularly important. this works better for non-fiction and reference works, but even then the imformation must be presented in a manner the reader expects and the writing is then affected. Shorter sentences combined with strongly relevant links that form part of the message are a new form of literature. I have seen poetry linking to videos on YouTube to illustrate a concept. This is a new form that has its own rules.

    Form influences and we are then left with the problem of how to present a fiction form suitable for internet readership. Traditional fiction will continue to be printed, but don't expect your next novel published online to be read.

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