The Book of Clouds

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  November 17, 2010

On top of all that, our professor would have to study what little Tao Lin kept to himself. As Kirschenbaum pointed out, a personal computer is a complete writing environment. Contemplate your laptop: your iTunes library, your digital photos, your pirated movies, your desktop background, and the way you organize these files. If you are or will become a famous writer, all of these will be of the utmost importance to those who will one day study you.

As Kirschenbaum noted, Emory University has four of Salman Rushdie's personal computers in the world's first virtually searchable exhibit. Visitors park at work stations, where they have access to different versions of Rushdie's manuscripts and the computer games he played while writing them. "Inappropriate materials have been redacted," Kirschenbaum said, referring to personal e-mails and, for all we know, naked pictures of Padma Lakshmi.

Of course, digital information seems delicate — as knows anyone who's ever accidentally deleted a term paper. Hard drives crash. Blogs get 404'd. Phones fall into toilets. Hardware degrades (remember floppy discs?), software becomes outmoded (remember WordPerfect?).

But not to worry. "Electronic data are not any more fragile than any other form of inscription," Kirschenbaum said, noting that the pencil was once controversial because it can be erased.

"There is no computation without representation in digital media," he added. To access these electronic imprints, archivists are using state-of-the-art forensic software.

Of course, this assumes that there will be critics in the future, and that they will still be interested in literature. Another quasi-autobiographical epistolary novel released this fall suggests they might not be.

Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story follows a hapless New Yorker named Lenny Abramov, the "last reader on Earth." Abramov's love for books alienates him utterly from a hyper-consumerist, post-digital society.

Abramov works for a company that sells eternal life. In one memorable scene, his boss dresses him down:

Those thoughts, these books, they are the problem . . . That's why all those young whizzes in the Eternity Lounge want to shove a carb-filled macaroon up your ass. Yes, I overheard that. I have a new beta eardrum. And who can blame them, Lenny? You remind them of death. You remind them of a different, earlier version of our species.

Shteyngart's dystopian vision resonated — the novel spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But if the Amazon sales figures for the Kindle are to be believed, readers aren't all that conflicted about reading on electronic devices.

Elizabeth Long, a sociologist at Rice University, said as much in her Why Books? talk. "Whenever these kinds of technological changes sweep into a field of cultural production, there is a lot of chaos [that] tends to divide into prophets of gloom and prophets of light," she said. "Prophets of both tendencies have been talking about the 'End of the Book' at least since the beginning of electronic media."

Bypassing the prophets, Long surveyed a number of readers to determine how they felt about reading in the digital age. Instead of teeth-gnashing or hair-tearing (or, in the case of some indie rockers, returning to the literary equivalent of the cassette tape), many of Long's readers have adapted quickly to the available technologies. Unlike the pros, everyday readers tune in at will to the broader technological discussion while carrying on reading in whatever way makes them happiest.

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