Of Print and Technology

The debate between print and technology has been around for quite a while and as the latter grows more and more advanced, so does the worry about the future of literature. Dr. Alvin Kernan’s essay “Plausible and Helpful Things to Say About Literature in a Time When All Print Institutions Are Breaking Down” delves into this subject and what may or may not happen to the state of literature as time goes by. When the television first appeared, many in the publishing industry were beside themselves, wondering what that would mean for the sales. A common question was why would anybody want to read the news when they could access it via television?

While the advent of television certainly changed the world of entertainment, it changed the world of news as well. Now all it took was a remote to see what was going on with the world. Some would call this a marvel and a sign of progression, while others would call it a curse, the downfall of literature and ultimately, the act of reading. As the television was replaced by the internet, the idea of literature dying out has gotten more and more focus, to the point where many people believe that all books and newspapers will be exclusively online in a matter of years.

Dr. Kernan’s essay is fascinating because, although it was published in 1991, it illustrates many of the fears people have about literature and where’s it going with the quickly changing technology and, if something is published online, if it really counts as literature. Though the internet wasn’t nearly as vast in 1991 as it is now, the fact that it existed and that information could be spread throughout it issued many different reactions from people. Some saw it as a tool of the future, a way to share and preserve writing, and others saw it to be manufactured and impersonal, that writing is much more powerful in print.

Each argument has its pros and cons but it can’t be denied that without technology, some works would have been lost forever. Even the act of writing on tablets or stone walls could be seen as the first technology. Dr. Kernan mentions that writing or rather, the act of it has been around since before the common era but he doesn’t mention the tools they used in the process. He states, “Since writing appeared in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and especially since the print revolution began about 1450, first the manuscript and the book have been the privileged modes of communication and information storage in Western society.” (9) There seems to be this idea that print is superior to all other forms of writing, despite that it wasn’t even the first form.

Some forget that writing was discovered on stones, tablets, and even bones and without them, writing wouldn’t have become what it is today. If somebody from ancient Egypt were to go to 1991, they would likely ask what makes reading books any better than reading tablets? Fast-forward to this era and there are many people asking why reading from one’s computer or phone is better than reading a book. It’s become something of a running gag, parents puzzling over why their kids are so addicted to their gadgets, despite that their own parents probably chided them for watching too much television or listening to the radio instead of reading a book.

The idea that technology is killing literature is not completely impossible but there are quite a few flaws in that argument too. The internet may be filled with ads and quizzes and all sorts of other distractions but there are a great number of sites dedicated to preserving literature and history. There’s only so much that can be contained in a hardcover encyclopedia but with the online world, there is no limit. For example, if one wants to look up Dickens, all one has to do is type his name under Google and thousands of sites will pop up. Granted, not every site is a hundred percent accurate but the same can be said for books. No matter what condition the book is in, there is still a chance of finding one or more typos in it.

Some might say that books are more important than online sources because they’re the real copy, they’re how the author intended their works to be read but there are many books that have been edited and reedited over the years, until they barely resemble the original version. Sometimes, it’s a case of censorship and other times, chunks of the work were lost in some way. Dr. Kernan mentions how the distribution of books is an issue as well, how some companies don’t put enough time and effort into the process and, as he describes it, “As a result, books are filled with misspellings and poor grammar; they are too long and poorly organized.” (14) It makes one question if the companies don’t want to put out their best material, why would others want to pick it up?

It’s true that less and less people read for fun but at the same time, can one blame them when they aren’t being given quality? The problem isn’t with presentation but with content. One look no further than the bestseller lists of the past five years to see what’s wrong with this picture. It’s not about technology, it’s about society and what we deem as a good book. When something like Fifty Shades of Grey receives as much fame and fortune as it does, it really does feel like the death of literature. However, despite the internet being a part of its popularity, it has also given way to discussions about literature as well as saving it, such as sites like The Poetry Foundation and Goodreads. Had Dr. Kernan written his essay nowadays, it would be interesting to see what he would say on the subject.

Kernan, Alvin. “Plausible and Helpful Things to Say About Literature in a Time When All Print Institutions Are Breaking Down.” (1991): PDF