Two new anthologies explore the impact of technology on book culture, each featuring brief contributions from notable writers revolving around a specific question. The Late American Novel by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee consists of essays in an appealing variety of postmodern styles about how electronic reading is affecting the craft of creative writing. Sean Manning's Bound to Last asks writers to look fondly backward at physical books that have been significant in their lives, and to write about the books as objects.
Here are some notes on a few of the pieces in each of the books.
Rivka Galchen opens The Late American Novel with a funny dystopian fantasy, imagining that all the paper in the world has been destroyed by an infectious virus, after which the world finally appreciates it as never before ("In Brooklyn, a paper-making collective was born."). This type of sardonic humor permeates the book. Tom Piazza stages a self-interview that begins with him waking himself up in the morning, but the layer of comedy conceals some serious concerns about electronic publishing: "Computers and e-books and smartphones all basically look alike. They are strictly vehicles; you pick them up to step through them into some consensus reality; you're wired in. Everything is leveled out. When everything has equal weight, everything is weightless."
If you don't like sarcasm, this might not be the book for you, and a few of the pieces don't seem to have anything beyond the requisite parodic tone. Garth Risk Hallberg is one of the best contributors to co-editor C. Max Magee's blog The Millions, but his mocking self-portrait of a writer stricken by electronic overconnectedness feels obligatory, and I suspect he phoned the piece in (Hallberg closes, jokingly, with "sent from my iPad"). Ander Monson's piece starts off loopy but then becomes way too earnest ("What I'm saying here is that we've forgotten how it can feel to make a book.")
At least Benjamin Kunkel writes his heart out on "Goodbye to the Graphosphere", though I don't necessarily buy his thesis that the emergence of the "digisphere" threatens anything at all. But he makes the original point that the form of the novel has always had a certain grassroots, amateur-hour kind of charm -- a kind of charm that we now associate with freewheeling Internet culture rather than literary fiction. Kunkel is onto something here -- perhaps it's the internet's appropriation of a kind of indie/amateur appeal that previously belonged to literature that most threatens the future of the book.
Probably the best piece in The Late American Novel is by a writer I've never heard of, Rudolph Delson, who points out that to somebody inquiring about the future of literature in the year 1910, an accurate description of the great modern literature that would emerge during the 20th century, from Dubliners to Toni Morrison, would simply make no sense. He also points out that this hypothetical person from 1910 would have never heard of Moby Dick, even though Moby Dick had been published in 1851, because the 20th century would not have rediscovered Melville yet. The title of Delson's piece is "The Best Books Will Be Written Long After You're Dead", and it's slightly disconcerting to realize that this may be true.
The Late American Novel also features a kickass cover by Thomas Allen, who explains the artwork in a short piece. Sean Manning's Bound to Last also has a pretty interesting cover, designed to look like a well-trampled copy of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. None of the writers who contribute to Manning's anthology pick Catcher as their most cherished physical book, but we do get a vibrant mix of titles, including The Stranger (Anthony Swofford), Das Kapital (Shahriar Mandanipour) and Speak, Memory (Danielle Trussoni). There are several good pieces here: Jim Shepard tells a great story about a vast, lost book warehouse he once stumbled onto; Sarah Manguso vividly describes a Ripley's Believe It or Not! collection (I remember these books from my own childhood), and Xu Xiaobin's homage to a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry, which once seemed to mirror her struggles growing up in China, is a good reminder of the power of literature to reach across cultural boundaries.
The best entry in this book might be Francine Prose's Proustian celebration of the endpaper linings in a memory-filled Anderson's Family Tales. I had the most trouble with Ed Park's paean to the Dungeon Master's Guide because, well, I don't play Dungeons and Dragons and I had no clue what he was saying at all. I was particularly interested to see what the anthology's editor would pick for his own selection, and was amused to find Sean Manning writing about a book, James Joyce's Ulysses, that he still hasn't read.
These anthologies are good, when they are good, because of the individual qualities of the pieces selected. There are worthwhile nuggets in both collections, but it's still not clear that anything brilliant can be said about literature in the digital age at this highly self-conscious moment in the evolution of publishing, nor that anything brilliant needs to be said. I just bought my first Kindle, and the main thing I've discovered is that reading a book on a Kindle feels a whole lot like reading a book in print. There's really very little difference at all.