The Book of Clouds

As books turn into data and tweets are archived for posterity, how will readers and academics cope with the detritus of a digital age?
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  November 17, 2010


A hundred years from now, how will literary historians deal with 21st-century authors like Tao Lin?

Earlier this fall, the 27 year old released his second novel, Richard Yates. Named for the famous writer, the autobiographical novel concerns two lovebirds named Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning; Lin peppers his narrative with their e-mails, text messages, phone calls, and gchats.

Writing in The London Review of Books, David Haglund said, "Lin captures certain qualities of contemporary life better than many writers in part because he dispenses with so much that is expected of current fiction." Lin was reviewed (more tepidly) in the Sunday Book Review. Seattle's The Stranger even gave his diffident essay, "Great American Novelist," the cover.

But before the laurels, Lin was more famous as a dedicated, classic Internet troll.

He came on the scene in 2005 with a blog called "Reader of Depressing Books"; launched a massive, if tongue-in-cheek, e-mail publicity campaign (e-mailing reviewers in the person of non-existent interns, sending query letters filled with obvious lies); and created pseudonymous screen names with which he commented on his own blog and the blogs of others. He started online feuds with a number of literary tastemakers. He called n+1 editor Marco Roth a hamster. Gawker's Emily Gould called Lin "retarded." His previous books include a self-published volume of his own unedited gchat transcripts.

All those blog posts, e-mails, and comments — not to mention MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter outpourings — far outnumber the word count of Lin's total printed work. And it will all probably be around for centuries, persisting in Internet archives and databases and hard drives. How will future scholars, intent on understanding who Lin was and what he meant, possibly sift through that much junk?

At the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study's Why Books? conference two weeks ago — a summit on the future of books and their format, storage, retrieval, circulation, transmission, reception and use — Matthew Kirschenbaum, a digital humanities scholar at the University of Maryland, addressed this question.

Until recently, Kirschenbaum explained, a critic's primary sources were limited to manuscripts, drafts, notes, journals, and correspondence, known to scholars as the "textual condition." Now, thanks to personal computers, the Internet, social networking sites, and multi-platform e-books, the textual condition has grown a little more baroque. And that's just the beginning of the havoc that new media will be visiting on our old friend, the librarian.

Kirschenbaum listed a bevy of sources many of the academics, librarians and literary professionals in the audience hadn't considered: print and electronic editions, including pirated e-books; Amazon customer reviews and sales rank; keyword searches; publishers' Web sites and Amazon pages; book trailers and resulting YouTube comments; online versions of book reviews and online-only reviews; related blog and Facebook posts; and tweets.

Yeah, that's right. Tweets.

Contemplating the magnitude of the electronic footprint elicited audible gasps from the audience. One exhausted librarian asked, "Is there no such thing as ephemera?"

Too much information
Which is why Lin is a future critic's nightmare. After collating Lin's avowed social-networking activity, a professor of Tao Lin Studies would need to hunt down his many fake screen names and trace how and when he deployed them. She would need to read his text messages, his e-mails, and hundreds of hours of instant messages, then cross-reference them with Richard Yates to see what he mined for novelistic inspiration.

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