By Diane Greco
Pundits nostalgically continue to disparage new media forms. William Gass issued the latest sortie in a recent issue of Harper's Magazine, arguing that "words on the screen" (his phrase) cannot compete with the pleasures of paper-and-ink textuality, because digital media do not record the serendipitous events that can occur in individual readings. To support his claim, Gass points to his discovery of certain jam-stained pages in his copy of Treasure Island, which, to him, evinced praiseworthy engagement with the book. Although Gass seems to have outgrown the juvenile excitement to which the pages attest, nevertheless he values his copy, with its sticky leaves, as a relic, as tangible evidence of better days before everything became, in Gass's words, "data day and night."
Eastgate editor Diane Greco responds.
How disappointing to read William Gass's essay, "In Defense of the Book." He might as well have called it "Culture for All of Us, Dammit," for all the light that it shed on the current state of its purported subject, "words on the screen."
Gass's real animus is not the computer, or computer-mediated writing, but his perception of the communications industry as dominated by interests that, because they are commercial, must also aim to dupe the unsophisticated. Against philistines in mass media, Gass poses as enlightened defender of the young and the hapless, who must be protected from mass media commercialism's mind-rotting effects. Naturally, Gass may be as irritatingly paternalist as he likes, but he misses the point by implying that new media forms are just like TV.
Even more distressing, Gass fails to address (or read!) the very literature he pooh-poohs. Take, for instance, hypertext, a type of new media inconceivable without digital technology. It is an emerging form, with an emerging set of rules and conventions involving montage, juxtaposition, and other techniques and sensibilities derived not only from writing, but also from film, music, and visual art. To work well in this demanding medium requires skill, intelligence, and above all, patience, for the form remains neglected by critics who, like Gass, prefer to dismiss what they cannot be bothered to understand.
Mark Bernstein, Eastgate's chief scientist and the usual occupant of this space, suggested I close with what's known as a "call to action,". But what comes to mind are only pictures of cessation; I imagine a world in which no one defends print by defending a monument known as The Book, or by waxing nostalgic for the smell of paper and ink or the pleasure of reading paperbacks in the bathtub. Haven't we better things to do, better arguments to make?
Maybe the most important lesson to be learned from Gass's essay is that, in the wake of the Internet, there is indeed a pressing need for a reconceptualization of publishing, along the lines of a more inclusive and democratic model. Community-based print publishing and web publishing are two instances of digital media assisting such a transition. By making opportunities to publish more widely available, these technologies promise to give more people a greater stake in reading and writing. Can a literary renaissance be far behind? With so many readers and writers around, we might even have less snobbery about the future of books, and a clearer, less ponderous idea of just what is at stake, and for whom, in what Gass calls "the sustaining of standards, the conservation of literacy's history, the education of heart, eye, and mind."