Books and Bytes

Probing the rocky relationship between technology and literature

However, digital media also facilitates a profoundly democratic movement in literature. “Technological innovation encourages more and more people into the writing process. The influx of creativity and free thought is empowering, no matter the form or quality of literature,” he says.

Despite his nostalgia, Feffer believes that the advent of digital technology does not cause but merely accelerates an independent literary trend that he has observed for nearly two decades. “I think digital media is something new, of course, but it is a part of a larger context: a move to cater to a shorter attention span, multi-tasking, and a desire for concise, provocative writing that cannot be misunderstood,” he says.

He illustrates his point by comparing the writing styles of American and British academics twenty years ago. “While American writers had a rapid and clear style, British writers were more discursive, and tended to wander. However, over the past two decades, English-speaking writers from many countries began to write in the shorter, less digressive American style. One could argue that it’s an inquisition, and I argue that this inquisition is in keeping with technology as well,” Feffer says. “The technology only encourages us more to write in this manner.”


Even when new technologies do not explicitly bear on the consumption of literature, writers have actively responded to the work of their scientific contemporaries. “Today’s digital age is not the only instance when literary transformations have paralleled these scientists’ technological innovations,” Feffer says.


The same kind of interplay occurred, for example, during the booming development of the 1920s. “At the same time that the typewriter and telegraph became commonplace, Ernest Hemingway was determined to change the ornate Victorian form and incorporating concise, journalistic writing into his fiction,” he says. Just like the current digital age, the internationalism of the 1920s stressed brevity, condensation, and speed both on the technological front and in the literary realm.

Professor Peter L. Galison’s new seminar, History of Science 292: “Gravity’s Rainbow,” explores one literary response to technology through close analysis of Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern masterpiece. Published in 1973, “Gravity’s Rainbow” grapples with the Cold War world and the proliferation of nuclear weapons; the title itself refers to the parabolic trajectory of a V-2 rocket in freefall. “In a way, Pynchon is trying to confront the technological world and show that it is so much more than black and white or good and evil,” Galison says. “The scientific and technological commentary in the book is a reflection of the world that we inherited. It foreshadowed some troubling aspects of our age, such as the concern over digitalization of literature.”

English 90zt: “Techno-Lit: Images of Scientific Ideas in Fiction” is Professor Daniel Albright’s related effort to examine literary texts and the scientific innovations that distressed or inspired them. Albright originally team-taught the course with a physicist at the University of Rochester; “It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my whole life,” he says. Tentatively to be offered in the upcoming spring or fall semester, the class will explore the relationship between scientific and literary giants like Voltaire and Leibniz or Beckett and Heidegger. According to Albright, the parallels between physicists’ and artists’ rhetoric during the twentieth century were extensive and profound. For instance, he says, “during the tumultuous beginnings of atomic theory, Whitman and Kandinsky were on the search for their own ‘basic unit’ of non-representational, abstract poetry.” The course will highlight how these kinds of technological conflicts and innovations dramatically affected contemporary artists and writers.


The most obvious change in reading and writing, however, is the decline of the book as a physical object. Books are rapidly transforming into digital files stored on virtual bookshelves. Still, the movement from book to iPad or Kindle may be only a surface-level development. As Professor of English Leah Price ’91 puts it, “Is the ‘book’ an object made out of paper, or is it rather a set of functions? If it’s the latter, the book isn’t dead—it’s just using various digital forms to serve the same function.”

In order to explore the fate of the book in the future, Price formed a partnership with Professor Ann M. Blair ’84 to teach a faculty seminar called “The History of the Book” at the Harvard Humanities Center. In October, they will also present a conference on the topic at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study called “Why Books?”

“I am a literary critic and Ann is a historian, but we both approach the book from a long historical perspective, with a focus on the evolution of literacy, changing uses of the book, and the ages, gender, and cultures of readers,” Price says. Within this framework, the question of print versus digital media must be explored in the context of the book’s prior historical revolutions—such as those from the clay tablet to the scroll to the bound book.

On October 28 and 29, Price and Blair will tackle the topic together with a group of scholars, students, curators, and librarians who care for Harvard’s tremendously rich material resources and yet lack easy opportunities for collaboration. The conference will be opened by a round-table discussion between computer scientist Professor Stuart M. Schreiber ’81 and Professor Robert Darnton ’60, the Director of the Harvard University Library system. They will discuss Shieber’s Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard, a new open-access digital database of Harvard faculty publications, and its implications on the future of the library.

“The history of the book is a multi-disciplinary enterprise,” Price says. For a proper treatment of the book’s history, the conference will unite lawyers discussing intellectual property rights, computer scientists highlighting new ways to transmit texts, historians exploring how books are used as tools, businessmen explaining the economic aspects of publishing, and sociologists tracing the role of the book in society. “This is why the Radcliffe Institute is the perfect home for our conference—it is an ideal space for experimentation and interdisciplinary innovation,” she says.

The “Why Books?” conference will also venture outside of the Radcliffe Institute on Thursday, October 28 to visit archives and printing presses of yore, including the Baker Library Historical Collections, the Harvard University Press, the Bow and Arrow Press, and the Weissman Preservation Center. “We wanted to give the conference a more tactile sense because books are so often thought of as virtual, disembodied objects, and present valuable Harvard University resources that are usually closed to the general public,” Price says.