The Edge of the Precipice

The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?

Edited by Paul Socken
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    The Edge of the Precipice
    Book Description:

    Can a case be made for reading literature in the digital age? Does literature still matter in this era of instant information? Is it even possible to advocate for serious, sustained reading with all manner of social media distracting us, fragmenting our concentration, and demanding short, rapid communication? In The Edge of the Precipice, Paul Socken brings together a thoughtful group of writers, editors, philosophers, librarians, archivists, and literary critics from Canada, the US, France, England, South Africa, and Australia to contemplate the state of literature in the twenty-first century. Including essays by outstanding contributors such as Alberto Manguel, Mark Kingwell, Lori Saint-Martin, Sven Birkerts, Katia Grubisic, Drew Nelles, and J. Hillis Miller, this collection presents a range of perspectives about the importance of reading literature today. The Edge of the Precipice is a passionate, articulate, and entertaining collection that reflects on the role of literature in our society and asks if it is now under siege. Contributors include Michael Austin (Newman University), Sven Birkerts (author), Stephen Brockmann (Carnegie-Mellon University), Vincent Giroud (University of Franche-Comté), Katia Grubisic (poet), Mark Kingwell (University of Toronto), Alberto Manguel (author), J. Hillis Miller (University of California, Irvine), Drew Nelles (editor-in-chief, Maisonneuve), Keith Oatley (University of Toronto), Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia (British Library), Leonard Rosmarin (Brock University), Lori Saint-Martin (translator), Paul Socken (University of Waterloo), and Gerhard van der Linde (University of South Africa).

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8987-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
  3. Introduction: A Return to the Educated Imagination
    (pp. 3-10)
    Paul Socken

    I had been on the faculty of the University of Waterloo for thirty-seven years in the Department of French Studies when I retired in 2010. Colleagues in various departments in my university and elsewhere had been saying that students’ background and abilities had been changing dramatically over the years and I experienced the phenomenon in my teaching.

    Shortly before my retirement, I asked students how many read a newspaper in print or online: hardly any. I asked how many read literary texts, such as novels, poetry or short stories: very few. I asked how many read history or any other...

  4. Technology, Science, and the Book
    • Why I Read War and Peace on a Kindle (and Bought the Book When I Was Done)
      (pp. 13-26)
      Michael Austin

      War and Peace has long been a name to conjure with. Though not the lengthiest European novel, or even the most complex, Tolstoy’s masterpiece functions in highbrow circles as the book of books – a shorthand way of summing up all of the qualities that make a work of literature great. In other circles, it functions primarily as a negative – much like the profession of rocket science. To say that a book is “not War and Peace” is to say that it lacks literary heft. A young novelist, for example, might propose her first book to a publisher by saying, “it’s...

    • Reading in a Digital Age: Notes on Why the Novel and the Internet Are Opposites, and Why the Latter Both Undermines the Former and Makes It More Necessary
      (pp. 27-41)
      Sven Birkerts

      The nature of transition, how change works its way through a system, how people acclimate to the new – all these questions. So much of the change is driven by technologies that are elusive if not altogether invisible in their operation. Signals, data, networks. New habits and reflexes. Watch older people as they try to retool; watch the ease with which kids who have nothing to unlearn go swimming forward. Study their movements, their aptitudes, their weaknesses. I wonder if any population in history has had a bigger gulf between its youngest and oldest members.

      I ask my students about their...

    • Solitary Reading in an Age of Compulsory Sharing
      (pp. 42-52)
      Drew Nelles

      I like being alone, and I spend an inordinate amount of time that way. I have kind friends, talented colleagues, a family with whom I remain close, but being alone offers its own kind of joy, its own secret rewards. I like eating at restaurants and going to movies alone. I like walking and biking alone. I work at a small magazine, and I’m frequently the only person in our little office, writing and editing in silence. Being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely, and it’s possible, I think, to be half introvert and half extrovert simultaneously – an...

  5. Literature and the World (Part One)
    • Literature as Virtual Reality
      (pp. 55-71)
      Stephen Brockmann

      Why should one read literature in the digital age? Probably for the same reasons that one read literature before the advent of the digital age, with maybe a few added reasons specific to the new digital situation. The first traditional reason for reading literature is that literature is entertaining; the second is that it is useful. Those are probably still the reasons for reading literature in today’s world.

      With these two traditional reasons I confess that I am not saying anything new whatsoever, and my failure to say anything genuinely new may annoy those who see the digital age as...

    • How Molière and Co. Helped Me Get My Students Hooked on Literature
      (pp. 72-88)
      Leonard Rosmarin

      Several years after retiring, I received a panic-stricken call from my former department. There was no specialist available to teach the upperlevel seventeenth-century literature course, indispensable for the honours program in French literature at Brock University. Would I come to the rescue? Feeling loyalty to my colleagues and being a glutton for punishment as well, I agreed. Within five minutes after entering the classroom I could sense that something was wrong. Although a dozen or so of the thirty-odd students making up the group seemed very attentive and eager to learn, the majority were children of the digital age. Or,...

  6. Physical and Philosophical Approaches
    • A World without Books?
      (pp. 91-108)
      Vincent Giroud

      When I joined the Yale library as curator of modern books and manuscripts in 1987, I was invited to participate in an orientation program designed to introduce new staff to the various branches of the University Library. At one of these meetings – it could have been the first – the university librarian, to impress upon us the importance and urgency of book conservation, showed us a book, printed on acid paper, which was in such terminal shape that it was literally crumbling under her fingers: between her thumb and first two fingers, she could take a pinch of it as if...

    • Language Speaks Us: Sophie’s Tree and the Paradox of Self
      (pp. 109-126)
      Mark Kingwell

      If you are reading this then the question “Why read?” de facto makes no sense – or at least it has been satisfactorily answered sufficient to the present occasion. Any member of the flashlight-under-the-covers family knows that if you have to ask why when it comes to reading, then you’ve missed the point, or maybe a whole bunch of points. You read because you can, whenever you can, whatever it is, against the rules, late at night, to the detriment of your eyes, eagerly and sadly and laughing out loud (and maybe LoLing). If you are not one of those people,...

  7. Poetic Readings
    • The End of Reading
      (pp. 129-139)
      Alberto Manguel

      “Why should we have libraries filled with books?” asked a smiling young futurologist at a recent library convention. (Futurology, for those who don’t read science-fiction, is a branch of electronics that forecasts future technologies and their prospective uses.) “Why waste valuable space to store endless masses of printed text that can be easily enclosed in a minuscule and resilient chip? Why force readers to travel all the way to a library, wait to find out if the book they want is there, and, if it is, lug it back to keep for a limited time only? Why deny readers access...

    • Cold Heaven, Cold Comfort: Should We Read or Teach Literature Now?
      (pp. 140-155)
      J. Hillis Miller

      By “we” in my title I mean we students, teachers, and the ordinary citizens of our “global village,” if such a term still means anything. By “read” I mean careful attention to the text at hand, that is, “close reading.” By “literature” I mean printed novels, poems, and plays. By “now” I mean the hot summer of 2010, the culmination of the hottest six months on record, clear evidence for those who have bodies to feel of global warming. I mean also the time of a barely receding global financial crisis and worldwide deep recession. I mean the time of...

    • Fragments from an Entirely Subjective Story of Reading
      (pp. 156-160)
      Lori Saint-Martin

      According to family legend, I ruined my eyes by “reading in the semigloom” (this is always the phrase), wedged in between the dining-room wall and a large credenza, the overhead light off because I was trying to hide my whereabouts. Already I was practising being somewhere else. If that is really how I ruined my eyes, it was worth it.

      Some people read; most people don’t. If questioned, readers look at you strangely and say “How could I not?” Non-readers bristle and say, “I just don’t have time for all that” or “What’s the use of reading anyway?” So I...

    • A Very Good Chance of Getting Somewhere Else
      (pp. 161-172)
      Katia Grubisic

      The last time I moved house, upon opening my boxes of books, I found I had three copies of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing. At that point, I had been moving every few months, nine times in five years, each time carting books and some clothes, and shedding equal weight in assorted hand-me-down furniture and decoratively worn garbage chairs.

      I like Surfacing: the northern wilderness that echoes my childhood, the thrilling fear of what floats and tangles below us when we swim in dark, cold lakes. But the novel’s presence in triplicate was bewildering; nor did I recall the acquisition of any...

  8. Literature and the World (Part Two)
    • Thinking Deeply in Reading and Writing
      (pp. 175-191)
      Keith Oatley

      It is said that the Internet is destroying attention span. “It’s technology,” people say. “Teenagers are always on the computer. You never see them read a book.”

      For giving information and opinion, for communication, and for offering new kinds of games, the Internet has been enormously successful. Use of it now occupies substantial amounts of time for both younger and older generations. But is technology killing literature?

      In this essay, I discuss the extent of book-reading in modern societies and consider the impact of digital technologies. For small amounts of information – snippets – the Internet is displacing printed sources, because it...

    • Don’t Panic: Reading Literature in the Digital Age
      (pp. 192-206)
      Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia

      I think that the famous phrase “Don’t panic” is a good starting point. The question above is so multifaceted that it is difficult to approach it. Why do we ask this question in the first place; what makes us think that the so-called “digital age” can threaten our ability to read and enjoy literature? A question like this would have never occurred to us a couple of decades ago. Why can the so-called “digital age,” or changing media or format in which we receive information affect our perception of literature? I think the answer, or part of it at least,...

    • Why Read against the Grain? Confessions of an Addict
      (pp. 207-222)
      Gerhard van der Linde

      I cannot remember exactly when I became hooked on reading literature, or which particular texts led to this lifelong fascination, but I can recall some of those early readings: an Afrikaans translation of Camus’ La pierre qui pousse (The Growing Stone), which I found in the children’s section(!) of the Bloemfontein Public Library; Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, also in an Afrikaans translation; the thrill of discovering Brothers Karamazov, sent to me by a neighbour while I was in bed with flu; and after that, the excitement of reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s great works, an excitement which had the freshness and...

  9. About the Authors
    (pp. 223-228)
  10. Index
    (pp. 229-232)