Al Filreis

On Frets about the Death of the Book

Some anxieties become merely historical. One is surely Barry Sanders's. His book A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word (Pantheon, 1994) is full of worries that the flow of data across the screen is replacing the cozy curl in the armchair--frets about the death of the book. I'm not really much concerned with the problem of making a rejoinder to Sanders, or to Sven Birkerts, whose book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber, 1995) eloquently joins the trend of English profs become anti-computing Jeremiahs. I'm more concerned, actually, with the way in which the logic of Sanders and Birkerts and others affects our thinking about universities at a critical moment when teaching, the intellectual relation of teacher to student, and basic university structures, can dramatically change for the better if we take a few conceptual cues from the information age. The parallels between the two situations--how electronic media alter the book and how they alter education--will have to remain somewhat implicit here, for lack of space.

For Barry Sanders, computers are intellectually fascistic. He thinks that when young people read books, as opposed to electronic text, they experience a kind of authority (the author's) that is engaging and not forbidding--entreating interaction. Horrified, he imagines that when a "young person...enters into an electronic world, [it is] one in which the rules are immutable and pre-established.... He or she comes to know that authority, real knowledge, and skill, reside in the machine, dictated by an anonymous disembodied programmer.... Authority resides in the book as well. But it is authority, not technological ukase." This so completely mistakes electronic text that one hardly knows where to begin. Sanders is wrong about the relationship between the authority of the programmer and the individual reader of e-text. If anything, authority is both more transparent and more effectively open to response in the new media for reading and learning than in the context of print--and here is where we might conceive of a powerful author-reader/teacher-learner relation for the near future.

The backlash against e-text rests on a fundamental false distinction: books provide an experience of authority characterized by, as Sanders puts it, the "meandering flow of ideas," while electronic text provides an experience of authority characterized by a mere "summary of rules." On one hand, the detractors of e-text understate the formal properties and limits ("rules") of printed writing; on the other hand, they overstate the determinism of software. An argument that proposes the preservation of freedom is often really an argument for a certain inflexible way of teaching. Sanders says his book takes up a society-wide problem, yet in nearly every hypothetical example the endangered individual is described as "a young person." The case against computing in the humanistic context is really about education - about how we (and Sanders and Birkerts - they're members of university faculties) are to teach.

So although it doesn't do to push the author-reader/teacher-student analogy too hard or far, there are important lessons about intellectual authority to be learned from it. Finally, Sanders is nostalgic for a stable teaching authority. But this tends to contradict his longing for the "meandering flow of ideas." At universities today, much of the best intellectual meandering is moving through phone lines and ethernet wiring--and some of the finest prose, too. It is not written in class, and, mostly, I would contend, not directly inspired by "courses"--what we too narrowly think of as the locus for the academic curriculum. This new writing may be overly responsive, too much a riposte to what came immediately before, too full of noise. And if one prefers cool expression to hot, settled to improvised, it's perhaps not quite so fine. But it is by no stretch "immutable and pre-established" and it is in no way the result of laziness.

Sanders would have it that the hundreds of screens full of lively, persuasive, responsive prose my students have posted electronically to their fellow students and to me in the course of studying literature are really authored by the Silicon Valley folks who wrote the software for the e-mail text editor we use. This is a serious underestimation of the reader's potential as a writer and of his or her level of engagement. It also diverts attention from our responsibility as teachers, which, as I see it, is to find or create a means by which students can experience (and learn from) authority by assiduously responding to it.

Authors and teachers have as a new tool a kind of text that can "meander" by virtue of its form as well as its content, literally urging the reader to make choices at every turn. To the extent that we can resist the easy characterization of this mode of reading and learning as inhuman and "dictatorial" - with its anxious view of cultural authority as residing not in the individual creator of text but in the creator of the system syntax - then, I think, we will be better able to face a few of our problems as educators.